THE REAL WORDS OF THE YEAR – 2018

It has become a tradition for the major dictionary publishers, along with some linguists’ associations, to nominate a ‘word of the year’, a term (or in the case of Oxford’s 2015 crying/laughing emoji a symbol) which supposedly captures the essence of the zeitgeist, and in doing so marks the proposer as someone in tune with the times and with their target audience. The words chosen are rarely actually new, and by the nature of the exercise calculated to provoke disagreement and debate. I have worked with and written about what linguists and anthropologists call ‘cultural keywords’ and have my own ideas on which expressions could be truly emblematic of social change and cultural innovation. The words already nominated by the self-appointed arbiters are discussed at the foot of the page, but here, for what it’s worth, are mine (in order of preference)…

 

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AI

Yes, strictly speaking it’s two words, but this little initialism looks like a two-letter word and is processed by the brain as a ‘lexeme’ or a single unit of sound and sense. AI, artificial intelligence, is the hottest topic not only in tech-related practices but in fields as (seemingly) diverse as marketing, finance, automotives, medicine and health, education, environmentalism. Zdnet.com has published one of the most useful overviews of AI and its sub-categories and applications:

https://www.zdnet.com/article/what-is-ai-everything-you-need-to-know-about-artificial-intelligence/

Though it is one of the most fashionable and most resonant terms in current conversation, a slogan and a rallying cry as well as a definition, AI is problematic in the same way as two other recent contenders for word-of the moment, CRYPTO and DIGITAL. The former is shorthand for all the very complex, not to say near-incomprehensible elements that have accompanied the invention of crypto-currencies – bitcoins and blockchains in particular. These advances have yet to prove their worth for most ordinary consumers who will often be bemused by new terminology that seems to be traded among experts somewhere beyond their grasp or their reach. In the same way for the last few years ‘digital’ has been a mantra evoking the unstoppable influence of new electronic media, (related SOCIAL was a strong candidate for buzzword of 2017). Digital’s over-use by overexcited marketing professionals, would-be thought-leaders and influencers has been inspiring mockery since 2016, as in the spoof article in the Daily Mash: https://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/business/nobody-knows-what-digital-supposed-to-mean-20160614109525

To put it almost as crudely as the Daily Mash does, there’s a sense in which almost no layperson knows, or can know fully, what Digital, Crypto and AI really mean, and the same goes for the expressions derived from them – ‘deep learning’ comes to mind. Their power derives from their novelty and their ability to evoke a techutopian future happening now. The phrase artificial intelligence was first employed in 1956 and its abbreviated form has been used by insiders since at least the early 2000s, but it is only now that it, and the concepts it embodies, are coming into their own.

 

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INTERSECTIONALITY

At first sight just another over-syllabled buzzword escaping from the confines of academic theory (‘performativity’, ‘superdiversity’ and ‘dimensionality’ are recent examples) into highbrow conversation, intersectionality is actually an important addition to the lexicon of identity studies. It was coined as long ago as 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil rights activist and legal scholar who wrote that traditional feminist ideas and anti-racist policies exclude black women because they face overlapping discrimination that is unique to them.  The word took 26 years to make it into the OED and is still unfamiliar to many, but during 2018 has featured in more and more debates on diversity and discrimination, marking the realisation that, for BAME women and for other marginalised groups, the complexities of oppression and inequality occur in a matrix that incorporates not only gender and ethnicity but such factors as age, sexuality and social class. There are each year a few forbiddingly formal or offputtingly technical expressions that do deserve to cross over into mainstream use. This I think is one of them and no journalist, educationalist, politician or concerned citizen should be unaware of it.

A bad-tempered take on intersectionality as buzzword was provided last year by https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/30/intersectional-feminism-jargon

 

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CIVILITY

I was intrigued by the sudden appearance (sudden at least by my understanding) earlier this year – its online lookups spiked in June – of a decorous, dignified term in the midst of very undecorous, undignified public debate. This old latinate word’s denotations and connotations were in complete contrast with the ‘skunked terms’ and toxic terminology that I had collected elsewhere on this site. In fact, as is often the case, this word of the moment emerged from a longer tradition, but one largely unknown hitherto outside the US. Its proposer was Professor P.M Forni, who sadly died a couple of weeks ago. In 1997, together with colleagues he established the Johns Hopkins Civility Project — now known as the Civility Initiative — a collaboration of academic disciplines that addressed the significance of civility and manners in modern life. His ideas were seized upon by commentators on this year’s events in the US, with some asserting that the civil rights protests of the past were indeed more civil than today’s rancorous exchanges. Democrat Nancy Pelosi denounced Donald Trump’s ‘daily lack of civility’ but also criticised liberal opponents’ attacks on him and his constituency. Others pointed out that polite debate alone had never prevailed in the struggles against bigotry and violence and that civility was an inadequate, irrelevant response. Cynics inserted their definitions: ‘civility’ = treating white people with respect; ‘political correctness’ = treating everybody else with respect…which prompts the thought that perhaps, in recognition of realities on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s really ‘incivility’ that should be my word of the year.

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Here, in the Economist, is the ‘Johnson’ column’s perceptive analysis of those other nominations for 2018’s word of the year:

https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2018/12/08/the-meaning-of-the-words-of-the-year

While US lexicographer Kory Stamper provides the inside story on the American choices:

https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2018/12/18/language-nerds-worked-really-hard-that-words-year-list/wJgdhIMAQK7xcBvlc2iHOL/story.html?s_camp=bostonglobe:social:sharetools:twitter

Lynne Murphy‘s annual US to UK export/import of the year:

https://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2018/12/2018-us-to-uk-word-of-year-mainstream.html

And her UK to US counterpart:

https://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2018/12/2018-uk-to-us-word-of-year-whilst.html

In the New Year the American Dialect Society announced its own word of 2018, a disturbing euphemism employed by the Trump regime and a candidate for my glossary of toxic terminology (see elsewhere on this site):

https://www.americandialect.org/tender-age-shelter-is-2018-american-dialect-society-word-of-the-year

And from the militantly millennial LinguaBishes, some excellent examples of millennial/Generation Z terms of 2018:

https://linguabishes.com/2018/12/27/2018-words-of-the-year/

 

In October 2019 David Shariatmadari in the Guardian gets his preferences in early:

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/oct/14/cancelled-for-sadfishing-the-top-10-words-of-2019

 

…and, FWIW, I like to think that my own collection of cultural keywords, seeking to define the essence of Englishness back in 2011, is still relevant today:

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IT’S GETTING DARKER

It’s officially Spring now and we are emerging from the gloom induced by short days and long nights (or, from another perspective, by disruption to circadian rhythms and melatonin levels). The darkness (adjective ‘dark’ is from Old English deorc, used also as a noun from the 13th century) clears – literally – but metaphorical darkness is pervasive…just  after posting the paragraphs below I became aware of dark money, defined by The Observer as ‘an undeclared donation from an impermissible foreign donor’ (see below) and Dark Justice, a group of anti-paedophile vigilantes who pose as children online…

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We have marvelled at the notion of the invisible dark matter said to permeate the universe and physicists have supplemented this with the concept of dark energy; not directly detectable either but necessary to explain expansion and the appearance of life in the multiverse.

On a slightly more mundane level there are in 2017 consultancies advertising their services in uncovering dark data (information collected during business operations but not actually used) and helping organisations to exploit it. The d-word has been trending for some time. The dark web (aka the deep web or darknets), we are nervously aware, is inaccessible by standard searches, a mysterious zone where illicit products and services are traded and illicit vices practised.

Most professionals have heard by now of dark pools, (the image is of hidden areas of liquidity) where off-market trading of stocks, also known in banking jargon as internalisation, takes place, where large blocks of shares can be bought and sold anonymously and prices are only made public after deals are privately concluded. But other kinds of opaque transaction, though quite legal, also threaten to distort markets, masking true levels of market scarcity or surplus and hiding real levels of indebtedness, thus creating information asymmetry between insiders and outsiders. A more recent buzz-term in the fields of finance and commodities is dark inventory (shadow inventory is sometimes used for real estate), describing assets placed off-balance-sheet. These may be equities, contracts, undeclared hoarding – of metals, for example – or other pre-sold commodities which may or may not actually exist (fictitious quotations of steel and nickel are ghost inventory) but which remain beyond public scrutiny. The same term can stretch to include toxic, debt-encumbered or otherwise sinister elements in a portfolio. Dark social, meanwhile- the term was coined in 2012 by former deputy editor of The Atlantic Alexis Madrigal – refers to information exchanged in the workplace by private individuals via channels such as instant messaging programs, messaging apps and email rather than on public platforms like Facebook and Twitter. This so-called outbound sharing alarms the corporate world for two main reasons: it sidesteps company restrictions on the timewasting or subversive use of social media at work, and it so far isn’t possible to track, analyse or turn into marketing opportunities.

Far more disturbing is the notion of a coming digital dark age (not to be confused with the techno music and futuristic/fantasy artworks dubbed dark digital) which some pundits have been predicting. This refers to the potential loss of huge quantities of culturally important data, particularly old manuscripts, memoirs, mementos and images preserved electronically, if technological advances make their storage-formats obsolete so that they are no longer recoverable.

In 2018 overheated enthusiasm for blockchains and bitcoins gave way to fears about the sustainability of cryptocurrencies and the ways in which they could be manipulated. At the same time financial data-reporting on a national scale can be deliberately subverted, or can be skewed by the sheer complexity of the processes involved. One result is the phenomenon of dark GDP: economic activity not captured by current estimations. This is said to amount to 10% of US GDP, and who knows how much in secretive, bot-infested Russia?

Back in the everyday ‘Mr Slang’ Jonathon Green reminds me that from the 1990s dark has also featured in multiethnic youth vernacular in the UK. As with some other key slang terms it can have contrasting meanings, pejorative and appreciative, in this case signifying both ‘harsh’, ‘unfair’, ‘unpleasant’, and ‘impressive’, ‘edgy’.

 

 

*Latest updates: May 17, from George Monbiot, on ‘Dark Money’

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/17/dark-money-democracy-billionaires-funding

…and from The Conversation on August 24, ‘Dark DNA’

https://theconversation.com/introducing-dark-dna-the-phenomenon-that-could-change-how-we-think-about-evolution-82867?utm_term=Autofeed&utm_campaign=Echobox&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Twitter#link_time=1503571067

…and as the skies darken at the outset of Autumn, here’s The Conversation again, this time on ‘Dark Tourism’ 

https://theconversation.com/dark-tourism-can-be-voyeuristic-and-exploitative-or-if-handled-correctly-do-a-world-of-good-81504