From satire to transgender: the words that defined 2015, part one
As the year is drawing to a close, we have decided to take a look back at the events that shaped the past twelve months – and the words connected to them. Here is the first part of our end-of-year retrospective of the twelve words that defined 2015…
On 7 January, two armed men forced their way into the Parisian office of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 members of staff while wounding several more. As the media portrayed the tragic incident as an assault on free speech, writers and caricaturists all over the world debated and defended the use of satire. Media mentions of satire picked up this month, according to our Corpus:
Satire, which refers to ‘the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices’, ultimately derives from classical Latin satira, a variant of satura meaning ‘poetic medley’. The Latin satura appears to be in turn derived from Greek σάτυρος (‘satyr’) – an allusion to the chorus of satyrs, a class of woodland gods or demons, in form partly human and partly bestial, which are supposed to be the companions of Bacchus.
As we explained in an older blog post, the term hebdo in the magazine’s name is an abbreviation of the French word hebdomadaire, meaning ‘weekly’. Charlie was apparently taken from a monthly magazine of the same name, which in turn had taken it from Charlie Brown of the Peanuts comic that often featured in those pages. The name is also often assumed to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to former French President Charles de Gaulle.
In February, an internet dispute erupted over a viral photo of a dress that was shared on the social networking platform Tumblr. The controversy surrounded the question of whether the dress in question was white and gold or black and blue. In the first week alone the dress was reportedly mentioned in more than 10 million tweets – and even some notable celebrities chimed in:
I don't understand this odd dress debate and I feel like it's a trick somehow.
I'm confused and scared.
PS it's OBVIOUSLY BLUE AND BLACK
— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) February 27, 2015
The incident garnered considerate media attention and was swiftly dubbed ‘Dressgate’, following the tradition of previous word formations such as Nipplegate (2004) and Celebgate (2014).
The origin of the element -gate, which is used to denote an actual or alleged scandal, especially one involving a cover-up, is of course linked to the Watergate scandal that in the resignation of US President Richard Nixon in 1974.
Beginning at 8:30 GMT on 20 March, people from all over northern Europe turned their heads towards the sky to witness a rare astronomical occurrence – a total solar eclipse. The event led to an increase in mentions of the term eclipse:
As the above graph shows, March was not the only month that saw an eclipse. The term had another sudden peak in interest later this year when the so-called ‘supermoon’ lunar eclipse took place on the night of 27 – 28 September.
The dictionary defines eclipse as ‘an obscuring of the light from one celestial body by the passage of another between it’. The word came into English via Old French and Latin and ultimately derives from the Greek verb ἐκλείπειν, literally meaning ‘to forsake its accustomed place, fail to appear’.
In April this year, the Iran nuclear deal framework was agreed between Iran, the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States – plus Germany), and the European Union. At that stage mentions of nuclear in the media surged for a first time. Another uptick followed in July, when a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was reached:
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the adjective nuclear in the sense ‘of, relating to, or involving an atomic nucleus or atomic nuclei’ was first mentioned in an edition of the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science in 1914. It is a derivation of the noun nucleus, which comes from Latin and translates to ‘kernel, inner part’.
Near the end of May 2015, the indictment of fourteen people – including nine FIFA officials – over corruption charges sent shockwaves through the sports community. The BBC called the FIFA corruption scandal ‘sport’s biggest ever’. A look into the Corpus shows that corruption was frequently mentioned in the two months following the arrests in particular:
Corruption apparently entered the English vocabulary in the 12th century via Old French. The noun derives from Latin corruptio(n-), from corrumpere ‘mar, bribe, destroy’. In an earlier, now obsolete sense, corruption broadly referred to the ‘destruction or spoiling of anything’. The OED dates the latter sense to an occurrence in Shakespeare’s Henry III (1623).
The adjective transgender saw a big increase in usage this past June. The main reason for this uptick was Caitlyn Jenner’s much-talked-about appearance on the cover of Vogue magazine, revealing her new identity. Mentions of transgender in the press had already picked up earlier this year, when the former athlete opened up about her transformation from man to woman for the first time in an episode of US talk show 20/20 back in April:
Transgender apparently first appeared in 1974, with the sense ‘of, relating to, or designating a person whose identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender, but combines or moves between these’. The preposition trans- comes from Latin and literally means ‘across, to or on the farther side of, beyond, over’. Gender came into English via Anglo-Norman and Middle French gendre, which was used to mean ‘kind, sort’ in its earliest sense.
Which words have been important to you this year? Let us know in the comments.