At the end of each year, assorted dictionaries and language societies announce words or phrases that define that year, and I find it my pleasure (sometimes) and duty (always) to provide an annual brief report, focusing on the words that I find most intriguing … presented, I hope, as a sprightly, entertaining and, at least, a nonboring read.
The past few years have shown how dreadful things have been – with words such as COVID, insurrection, quarantine and other such symbols of unhappy times leading the lists.
But for 2022, there are most positive signs of hope and a bit of merriment, which gladdens me.
Oh sure, the realities of the world haven’t melted away, but the good news, especially for this lover of words in general, is that people are interested in all sorts of words and what they mean.
And what we have to thank for that, in large part, is that lovely little online word game that captured the attention of a whole lot of people this year – Wordle, with its daily six chances to guess one five-letter English word.
On May 5, the answer was “homer.” Baseball-loving Americans knew the word, but Wordle players outside of America weren’t as familiar, and Cambridge Dictionary took note of the huge upsurge in people looking up its definition. Cambridge saw the Wordle effect throughout the year with such common words as “humor” (spelled humour in England) and other less-familiar ones, such as “tacit” and “bayou.”
In announcing “homer” as its 2022 Word of the Year, Cambridge observed that people across the world “enjoy the shared experience of playing the game, and learning about unusual or unfamiliar words (or complaining about them) seems to be part of the fun.” They noted, too, the challenges of learning English in an increasingly connected world.
Oh, be still my heart.
Possibly the most surprising selection was “woman” as Dictionary.com’s choice for this year. In their announcement, they noted how the word reflects the intersection of gender, identity and language in much of society’s cultural conversation this year – including transgender rights and identity.
Searches for “woman” on Dictionary.com increased more than 1,400% this year – the biggest lookup surge beginning at the end of March during the confirmation hearing for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, when she was asked by a senator if she could provide the definition of the word. Additional surges followed with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
In its announcement of their selection, Dictionary.com noted how being a female in society has become so prominent in the national consciousness – from the killing of a woman in Iran for supposedly not wearing her hijab properly to Serena Williams announcing she is “evolving away from tennis” to WNBA star Brittney Griner’s imprisonment and eventual release in Russia to a record number of women (12) who will serve as governors in 2023 following this year’s midterm elections.
They summarized: “From our perspective as observers and recorders of language change, the word ‘woman’ is a prime example of the many gender terms undergoing shifts in how and to whom they’re applied.”
On Dictionary.com’s short list of contenders for the 2022 Word of the Year honor were the Ukraine flag emoji, “inflation,” “quiet quitting,” “democracy” and my new favorite friend, “Wordle.”
Of Wordle, they said: ” … the one thing that seemed to have the ability to bring everyone together in 2022 was a simple word game.”
As its honoree, Collins Dictionary picked “permacrisis,” which describes an extended period of instability and insecurity.
It cites ongoing political instability, the war in Ukraine, climate change and cost-of-living concerns as examples of permacrises.
And because Collins is British, I found it informative to look at some of the words they considered when making their choice: “Kyiv” (capital of Ukraine), “splooting” (the act of lying flat on the stomach with legs stretched out), “lawfare” (strategic use of legal proceedings to intimidate or get in the way of an opponent) and “sportswashing” (promotion of sports events to distract attention from a controversial activity).
Learning about English goes both ways across the Atlantic. It’s only fair.
Merriam-Webster selected “gaslighting” as its 2022 Word of the Year. The term for an act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage saw a 1,740% increase in lookups this year.
It keeps company, Merriam-Webster observed, with such modern forms of deception and manipulation as “fake news” and “deepfake.”
The dictionary also examined for consideration such words as “oligarch,” “omicron,” “codify,” “LGBTQIA” and “queen consort” – all of which would be interesting to read and write about as well, but there are space constraints to consider.
And finally, for now, there is the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2022 Word of the Year – “Goblin Mode,” a slang term they describe as a kind of behavior that is, without apology, self-indulgent, slovenly, greedy, lazy and typically such that rejects social norms and expectations. Oxford explains that it captures the prevailing mood of many individuals who, post-COVID, turned away from the idea of returning to what had previously been considered normal life or unsustainable lifestyles exhibited on social media.
Oxford makes a serious study over 12 months to come up with a word or term that potentially has lasting cultural significance, supported by real language use. At the event to announce this year’s choice, American linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer said “… goblin mode really does speak to the times and the zeitgeist, and … people are looking at social norms in new ways.”
Second place in Oxford’s consideration this year was “metaverse,” described as a hypothetical virtual reality environment in which users interact with one another’s avatars and their surroundings in an immersive way. Too big a topic for me to tackle here.
There are other sources, of course, including the prestigious American Dialect Society (which will announce its 2022 selection early in January), but my biggest takeaways in 2022 word of the year announcements are these – a welcome variety of subject matter (not just all political or corona virus doom and gloom) and actual joy in words (thank you once again, Wordle).
And in keeping with the spirit of the moment, as 2022 draws to a close, I wish everyone everywhere these two five-letter words – grace and peace, as we go forth into the new year.
Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at email@example.com.