Youthquake: behind the scenes on selecting the Word of the Year
Casper Grathwohl, our President of Dictionaries, takes us on a personal tour of the Word of the Year selection process, and why he’s particularly hopeful about this year’s choice:
Lexicographers have long understood that the words we surround ourselves with can offer an insightful perspective into the societies we live in, and the people we think we are. Our choice of language illuminates our preoccupations, with more transparency than we’d often prefer.
It’s for these reasons that I always look forward to the Word of the Year season. It’s a hearty challenge. Selecting one word each year that embodies the previous twelve months is a difficult task, which is one reason we surround it with a diverse shortlist of friends. We try to choose a word that reminds us about where we’ve just been, but also one that captures the zeitgeist, that defining spirit or mood of the moment. It’s a delicate decision. Sometimes our choice is serious, other times playful. Some years inspire a collective aha! moment of recognition, like 2013’s selfie; others a more somber reflection, as we saw with 2016’s post-truth. And of course there are years when the choice sparks a rather heated debate – selecting an emoji in 2015 sent many enraged word mavens to our door, dog-eared dictionary in one hand and a pitchfork in the other.
But selecting the Word of the Year is not just an art – there’s a lot of science to it as well. After all, Oxford Dictionaries hosts the most active evidence-based dictionary program in the world. Over the last decade we’ve learned to harness big data to ensure that evidence and usage statistics underpin our selection. The Word of the Year is a result of the ongoing work carried out by more than a hundred lexicographers analyzing the changes in how we’re using language.
With this in mind, we kicked off the 2017 Word of the Year season scanning through the public conversations that characterized the past twelve months. Not surprisingly, the first thing that stands out is the amount of debate reflecting our political and social anxiety. The second, even less surprising standout is how much we talk about Donald Trump. Let’s face it: we’re all clearly obsessed. Not just with what he’s saying, but with how he’s saying it. Comparing usage data from this year to last, we found a threefold increase in the word ‘Trump’ appearing next to the word ‘tweet’ (as in ‘Trump tweeted’, ‘Trump’s tweet’, etc.) I wouldn’t be surprised to discover a nest in the White House rose garden!
A range of words on the 2017 shortlist reflects this political and social verbiage. Words like Antifa and kompromat have strong usage evidence and are worthy call-outs, but choosing any one of them as Word of the Year didn’t feel right. At best the story these words tell is too narrow, and at worst it feels like poking a wound that may no longer be fresh but nonetheless still throbs. Last year’s selection of post-truth continues to resonate within this category so we thought we’d let it echo a while longer.
But if not politics, then where to look? One topic the chattering classes seemed unable to drown out was the environment and the ecological state of our planet. News cycles brimmed with coverage of permafrost and glaciers melting, the never-ending debate over climate change, and the devastating effects of hurricanes that battered islands and coasts alike. As our process got underway we scoured the language corpora for a 2017 coinage giving voice to Mother Nature’s anguish and wrath. Alas. We may have talked until we were arctic blue in the face, but we found no evidence of a new or re-emerging word that embodies what’s happening to the Earth. Consider this a call to arms to all you self-styled neologists out there: coin that new word for ‘Mother Nature’s wrath’. We need it!
This year we’ve also been grappling with identity politics, our evolving sense of the ‘gendered self’, and the unjust power gap between men and women underpinning sexual harassment and abuse. The language of this cultural moment is captured in the recent use of ‘Harveyed’ as a verb, the #MeToo tag as a means of turning up the volume on previously dismissed voices, and the growing use of ‘non-binary’ as a gender description. The related neologism broflake made it onto our shortlist, but seemed to lack the gravity to bear the Word of the Year crown. I’d watch this space when it comes to next year’s selection given the recent groundswell of attention around these issues. We definitely are.
Surprisingly, tech words seemed in short supply this year. Technology news may draw our attention on a daily basis – a study earlier this year found using smartphones is even changing the way we walk – but if our language is an indicator, we’re burning out on the rapid-fire new vocabulary that inspired past Word of the Year contenders such as podcast, ad blocker, Dark Web, and GIF. Yet you early adopters needn’t worry about how to describe the latest gadget. The technocrats’ hold on our future is as strong as ever and soon enough we’ll need a new generation of vocabulary to describe our AI assistants, flying cars, and lunar vacations.
So given this broad examination of the year in language, what did we eventually settle on? I am pleased to introduce youthquake as Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2017.
No, it’s not an obvious choice. Many of you may even be scratching your heads. It’s true that it has yet to land firmly on American soil, but strong evidence in the UK, where it rose to prominence as a descriptor of the impact of the country’s young people on its general election, calls it out as a word on the move. It’s defined as a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people. Usage of the term in the UK increased fivefold in 2017 over 2016, including a huge spike in the second half of the year. And youthquake is traveling fast.
The word first built momentum in the wake of the British polls in June when young voters almost carried the Labour Party to an unlikely victory. Then it began to gain usage in New Zealand in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in September (in which the Labour party aimed to appeal to younger voters and succeeded in gaining seats and forming a new minority government). Aussies acknowledged the word in referencing it during their November referendum on marriage equality, which resulted in a youthquake of support. We’re clearly looking at an ambitious word with suitcases packed.
The word also offers an impressive linguistic pedigree. Youthquake originated in a very specific context, coined by Diana Vreeland, the editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine, when British youth culture was changing the face of fashion and music in the 1960s. In a photo-filled article entitled ‘Youthquake’, Vogue writes:
Youth… is surprising countries east and west with a sense of assurance serene beyond all years. First hit by the surprise-wave, England and France already accept the new jump-off age as one of the exhilarating realities of life today. The same exuberant tremor is now coursing through America—which practically invented this century’s youth in the first place.
Five decades later youthquake has been resurrected with a new meaning, now referring to the political awakening of the oft-maligned millennial generation.
We chose youthquake based on its evidence and linguistic interest. But most importantly for me, at a time when our language is reflecting a deepening unrest and exhausted nerves, it is a rare political word that sounds a hopeful note. Hope that the damage we’ve done to our institutions will enable the next generation to rebuild better ones. Hope that our polarized times are creating a more open-minded electorate that will exercise its voice in the times ahead.
Sometimes you pick a Word of the Year because you recognize that it has arrived, but other times you pick one that is knocking at the door and you want to help usher in. As the annus horribilis of 2017 draws to a close, a year which many of us feel we’ve barely survived, I think it’s time for a word we can all rally behind. A word we can root for and collectively empower as the Word of the Year.
Wait… did you just feel that? I think it’s the beginning of a youthquake.
Find out more about our Word of the Year 2017 campaign.