The Oxford Dictionaries Hindi Word of the Year is… aadhaar!
Last November, Oxford Dictionaries announced its search for a Hindi Word of The Year, calling on speakers of the language to help choose a Hindi word that captures the prevailing ideas, attitudes, and concerns of 2017. After weeks of studying the lexical trends of the past year, reviewing the hundreds of public suggestions received, and consulting the opinions of an advisory panel of language experts, Oxford Dictionaries has chosen its first ever Hindi Word of the Year: aadhaar.
Aadhaar is far from being a new word – in fact, its origins can be traced back to Sanskrit. In modern Hindi, aadhaar means ‘base’ or ‘foundation’, but the decision to use this word as the name of India’s new identification initiative put it at the centre of a great social and political debate in India that also attracted the attention of the rest of the world in 2017.
Aadhaar is a 12-digit identification number assigned to all residents of India. Translated into figures, that is almost 1.2 billion enrolled individuals as of the end of 2017, representing over 99% of Indians above the age of 18, each with a unique code linked to their biometric and demographic data. The Indian government’s aim for the introduction of Aadhaar is to eliminate duplicate and fake identities, and to facilitate the delivery of social benefits and services to Indian citizens.
However, the very idea of putting such a vast amount of sensitive personal information in the hands of the government has led many Indians to protest against Aadhaar as a violation of the fundamental right to privacy. Widespread popular anxiety over data use and security was further compounded by the Indian government’s recent push to have enrolled individuals link their Aadhaar to a host of essential private and public services, from bank accounts and mobile phone numbers to old-age pensions and welfare schemes, and by widely reported security breaches and data leaks. Humanitarian issues have also been raised in connection with the treatment of homeless people who have not been assigned an Aadhaar.
The controversy surrounding aadhaar made it the word on everyone’s lips in 2017, but it is not the only one. Several other words have made the Word of the Year shortlist, each having become part of the Indian collective consciousness in the past twelve months.
Oxford Dictionaries’ public call for submissions brought in around 900 Hindi words, most of which were related to landmark political events in India. Most significant among them is the term notebandi, signifying the demonetization of certain Indian banknotes that was suddenly and unexpectedly announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi towards the end of 2016, but whose economic effects were most strongly felt in the year that followed.
Another politically tinged word that made it into the shortlist is bahubali, a word that originally referred to a person capable of accomplishing any task through a combination of courage and physical strength, but can now also apply to a politically influential person. Bahubali gained national prominence in India in 2017 with the release of fantasy-action film Bahubali 2 – a Telugu- and Tamil-language blockbuster hit coming not from Bollywood but from southern India. The film is now one of the country’s highest grossing, and its title is also India’s most searched item of the year according to Google data.
Vikaas, the Hindi word meaning development, evolution, or growth, as well as a being a popular Indian name for boys, became a key term in the current government’s growth and improvement-focused agenda, but as a result, it has also figured heavily in the year’s most widely shared memes and slogans criticizing the government and its development-centred political messaging.
Rounding out the shortlist are the words swachh and yoga. Swachh, which means clean, neat, and orderly, is the operative word in Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), the name of the national cleanliness drive that started in 2014 but went into full swing in 2017, two years from the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi on 2 October 2019, by which the date the participants in this campaign aim to make Gandhi’s vision of a clean and hygienic India a reality.
Yoga is a practice originating from India that has been embraced by the world, but in its spiritual home the word continues to have significance as a symbol of health achieved through the balanced coordination of body, mind, and emotion.
The selection process
Among all these noteworthy words, aadhaar emerged as the clear frontrunner.
The selection of the Word of the Year was debated by a panel of distinguished Hindi language experts composed of lawyer, polyglot, and Indian language expert Kritika Agrawal; journalist Saurabh Dwivedi, Editor-in-Chief of thelallantop.com; Malika Ghosh, Senior Editorial Manager of Oxford University Press India; writer and publisher Namita Gokhle, co-founder and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival and Mountain Echoes, the Bhutan Literature Festival; and Poonam Nigam Sahay, Associate Professor at Ranchi University in Ranchi, Jharkhand. The members of the panel brought their varied perspectives and areas of expertise to the discussion, but all agreed on the relevance and timeliness of aadhaar.
The choice is also supported by Oxford Dictionaries’ analysis of the year’s lexical trends – online search information about aadhaar clearly shows a spike in usage over the last few years, peaking in mid-2017.
It is not difficult to see why aadhaar has had such an impact, not only on India, but also on the international community. Although not the first, the sheer size of India’s population makes Aadhaar the world’s largest biometric ID system, and the fears and concerns sparked by its implementation are the very same fears and concerns that preoccupy all of us who live in the digital age. Today, countries are grappling with policy on data collection, management, and security that can effectively balance national interests with citizens’ right to privacy, while individuals struggle to reconcile their need to fully participate in an electronically interconnected society with their understandable reluctance to cede so much of what is personal and private to faceless governments and corporations. In this sense, the way that India tackles the issues surrounding Aadhaar will point the way for the rest of the world.
Hindi on the global stage
Oxford Dictionaries’ selection of its first-ever Hindi Word of the Year serves as recognition of the increasingly prominent role played by Hindi and other Indic languages on the global stage. Hindi is the fourth most-spoken language in the world, with over 295 million native speakers. Among the top 50 most spoken are several other languages spoken in India: Bengali (7th), Punjabi (10th), Telugu (15th), Marathi (19th), Tamil (20th), Urdu (21st), Gujarati (26th), Kannada (32nd), Malayalam (34th), Odia (37th), Bhojpuri (41st), Maithili (44th), and Sindhi (46th).
India is also home to hundreds of millions of English speakers, but the use of this language is now being outpaced by the use of local languages, both off- and online, with Hindi posting impressive double-digit growth rates as an Internet language. It may also soon become an important diplomatic language, if the current proposal to add Hindi to the list of official languages of the United Nations is to be approved.
The overwhelming public response to the Hindi Word of the Year campaign has been central to its success, and is indicative of Hindi’s status as a living, evolving language whose speakers are active participants in the global conversation.
Visit the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year hub to find out more.