2018 Words of the Year

As in past years, I’ve come up with a list of words of the year. I do things a bit differently than other such lists in that I select twelve terms, one for each month. During the year as each month passed, I selected one word that was prominent in public discourse or that was representative of major events of that month. Other such lists that are compiled at year’s end often exhibit a bias toward words that are in vogue in November or December, and my hope is that a monthly list will highlight words that were significant earlier in the year and give a more comprehensive overview of the entire period. I also don’t publish the list until the final week in December; selections of words of the year that are made in November, as many of them are, make no sense to me. You cannot legitimately select a word to represent a year when you’ve got over a month left to go.

My list is skewed by an American perspective, but since I’m American (and living in Texas to boot), them’s the breaks—although I have tried to limit the number of Trump-related terms; given his ability to dominate the news cycle day in, day out, the list would otherwise be all Trump all the time.

I interpret word loosely, including phrases, abbreviations, hashtags, and the like. The selected words are not necessarily, or even usually, new, but they are associated with their respective month, either coming to widespread attention or relating to some event that happened during it.

So, here are the 2018 Wordorigins.org Words of the Year:

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January: bomb cyclone. In early January a winter storm slammed the East Coast of the United States, dumping up to sixteen inches of snow in some places and paralyzing an area stretching from New England to Virginia. TV and radio meteorologists started using the term bomb cyclone to describe it. The term is not a new one among meteorologists, having been used for decades to refer to a cyclonic storm, especially a winter one, resulting from a sudden and severe drop in barometric pressure, but this time the media, with its penchant for sensational weather stories, grabbed it and ran with it.

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February: crisis actor. On 14 February a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing seventeen and wounding seventeen others. Following the mass shooting, witnesses and victims were labeled crisis actors by conspiracy theorists, who claimed the shooting was a hoax. Crisis actor appears as early as 2012, originally referring to actors who played the role of victims of a mass casualty in drills to train first responders and other emergency response teams. But following the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the term was co-opted by conspiracy theorists and took on its sinister and imaginary sense.

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March: inclusion rider. Frances McDormand ended her Best Actress acceptance speech at the 2018 Academy Awards saying, “I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider!” An inclusion rider is a clause in an A-list actor’s or director’s contract that requires a certain level of equity in the hiring of women, people of color, or queer people in the production. While McDormand brought the term, and the issue of discrimination against women in Hollywood, into the public eye, she did not coin it. The term dates to at least 2016 when media researcher Stacy Smith used inclusion rider in a TED Talk. Smith had been promoting the idea of such equity clauses since at least 2014.

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April: incel. On 23 April 2018, a man, self-identified as an incel, drove a van into a crowd of pedestrians in Toronto, Ontario, killing ten and injuring sixteen others. Incel is a portmanteau of involuntary celibate, referring to a person, usually a heterosexual man, who desires a sexual or romantic partner but is unable to find one. Incel was coined in 1993 by a bisexual woman as an identifier for those seeking out support on the internet from others who also had difficulty finding a partner. The term continued in use in various internet subcultures and over time was co-opted by violent and misogynist men. The term became front-page news after the 2014 mass shooting in Isla Vista, California by another self-proclaimed incel.

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May: yanny/laurel. In a controversy reminiscent of the blue/gold dress of 2015, an audio illusion swept the internet in May. The illusion was of a recording of the word laurel that to many sounded like yanny. While seemingly an odd choice for one of the words of the year, the phenomenon is a great demonstration of the principles of phonology and how the brain converts sounds into words.

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June: feckless. In the midst of the controversy over the separation of parents and children trying to immigrate to the United States, Ivanka Trump tweeted a picture of herself holding one of her own children. In response, comedian Samantha Bee criticized Trump for not taking action to change her father’s policies, calling Ivanka a feckless cunt on Bee’s cable television show. Her use of the term generated the usual flurry of internet controversy during June, and Bee subsequently apologized.

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July: monsoon. This name for the rainy season in South Asia would not normally qualify as a word of the year as it happens every year, but this year the plight of twelve boys and their football coach trapped in a cave in Thailand riveted the world. The boys and their coach were exploring the cave when rising waters from the monsoon trapped them underground, and rescuers raced against time in the attempt to rescue them before more rains fell. The boys were eventually rescued, at the cost of the life of one of the rescue team.

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August: QAnon. In October 2017, a so-called “Q Clearance Patriot” started posting absurd conspiracy theories about a deep-state effort to undermine President Trump and supporters to the internet message board 4Chan. The name is a reference to the Top Secret Energy Department “Q” clearance, with the poster hinting that they had such a clearance. The absurd theories gained widespread and rapid acceptance among Trump’s supporters, but were largely ignored by the mainstream news media. But the appearance of QAnon supporters en masse at a Trump rally on 31 July brought the phenomenon to the media’s attention, and there was the usual overreaction and continuous stream of punditry on the subject throughout August, traditionally a slow news month, until the next shiny thing distracted the cable news outlets.

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September: witch hunt. Since Donald Trump is fond of using the term to refer to the Mueller investigation, witch hunt could have qualified as a word of year for almost any month. But it rose to even higher prominence in September when accusations surfaced that U.S. Supreme Court nominee (and now Justice) Brett Kavanaugh had committed sexual assault. These most recent uses of the term reverse the usual power dynamic. Traditionally, a witch hunt is when the powerful demonize and persecute a marginalized or less politically powerful group, often men persecuting women. But this latest use of the term is about women and the less powerful speaking out against men in power.

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October: caravan. October news in the United States was dominated by the caravan of migrants from Central America making their way northward to the U.S. The migrants, mostly families fleeing dangerous situations or economic instability were deemed a threat by the Trump administration, which falsely and hyperbolically associated them with terrorism. The connotations of the word caravan itself furthered this false narrative with its origins in and association with the Middle East and with the Roma (gypsies).

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November: blue wave. A wave election, in American political jargon, is an election where one party makes major gains over the other. Blue has been associated with the Democratic party, and red for the Republicans, since the 2000 election. This year’s mid-term election qualified as a blue wave, with the Democrats gaining 40 seats in and regaining control of the House of Representatives, gaining over 330 seats in state legislatures, and gaining 13 more governorships.

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December: civility. Former President George H. W. Bush died on 30 November at the age of 94. Obituaries and media coverage of his funeral continually focused on the concept of civility, how the late president embodied the politics of a kinder, gentler era. But in applying the word to Bush, who was capable of nasty political in-fighting when it suited him, as in the infamous Willie Horton advertisement, pundits and reporters were making sub-textual comments more applicable to present-day politics than those of the Bush-41 era.

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Honorable Mention: The honorable mentions are terms that rose to prominence during the year but were either not associated with a particular month or which lost out to another term.

  • Tide pod. The Tide Pod Challenge, in which teens dared each other to ingest packages of Tide laundry detergent, became a phenomenon of viral hysteria in January. It wasn’t completely fictional, with several being hospitalized for poisoning, but in actual numbers it was more media hype than real.
  • executive time. A euphemism for watching television, the Trump administration used executive time to block out long periods on the president’s calendar.
  • raw water. Drinking raw water, that is water that has not been filtered or processed, became a thing in 2018. While not as dangerous as ingesting Tide Pods, it’s not a smart thing to consume.
  • tender age. While far from new, this term came to the fore in the news this year, describing infants and toddlers who had been separated from their parents by U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel.
  • Camp Fire. The Camp Fire, which raged in November, was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, and the deadliest in the United States since 1918. Named for its point of origin along Camp Creek Road, the fire makes the list because of its conflation with the ordinary campfire.
  • devil’s triangle. A slang term for a sexual tryst involving two men and woman, the phrase came to the attention of mainstream media during the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings in September.

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