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From 'complicit' to 'youthquake': Word of the Year fever

I seem to remember back when there was no “Word of the Year.” Then there was. Now there apparently are as many as there are dictionary publishers.

Before I woke up yesterday, the only “Word of the Year” I remembered was “truthiness,” which was an invention of Steven Colbert at the beginning of his old Comedy Central show, but which was declared “Word of the Year” by dictionary publisher Merriam Webster back in 2006. (Part of the gag then was that “truthiness” wasn’t a word, until Colbert made it up to describe things that might not actually be true, but feel true, in your gut.)

So I guess word-of-the-yeariness goes back at least that far.

Yesterday morning on MPR, I heard Kerri Miller interviewing a word expert on the latest Word of the Year pick, “youthquake,” which was also not a word, until it suddenly was, and has now been declared 2017’s Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries. While it turns out “youthquake” wasn’t new last year, its usage apparently jumped 401 percent in 2017, or so claims Oxford Dictionaries.

“Youthquake,” if you’re wondering, is defined as “a significant cultural, political or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.”

Now, if you’re paying close attention, you noticed that “truthiness” was named Word of the Year by Merriam Webster in 2006, and “youthquake” was chosen for 2017 by Oxford. It turns out that anyone in the word racket that feels like it can declare a Word of the Year.

And, circling back to Webster, it decided that the 2017 Word of the Year was “feminism,” which is, I concede, an outstanding word, but is not even slightly new (or new-ish), like “truthiness” and “youthquake.”

It turns out that Webster chose “feminism” because of a huge spike in how often the meaning of “feminism” was being looked up around the time of the big Women’s March on Washington (and other places) at the time of the inauguration of you-know-who.

Yes, I know this isn’t the kind of post you’re used to seeing from me. But before I go back to my boring old self, I’ll offer one more schtick on today’s theme.

As I hinted above, there are many self-appointed choosers of words of the year and (one also gathers) there is little to no agreement of what that word is, nor common understanding of what criteria to apply to the choice.

The online dictionary site “dictionary.com,” chose “complicit” as the word of the year just ended. Yes, of course it’s a Trump thing, but not exactly in the Mueller investigation sense you might think. Dictionary.com chose “complicit” because dictionary.com (unlike actual old-fashioned publishers of old-fashioned physical dictionaries) has an easy way of knowing how many of us are looking up which words. And dictionary.com recorded two hilariously huge spikes in lookups of “complicit.”

As the site revealed in a post explaining the choice:

The first spike in searches for complicit was on March 12, with a 10,000% increase in daily average lookups. This was the day after "Saturday Night Live" aired their satirical ad featuring Scarlett Johansson playing Ivanka Trump, hawking a perfume called "Complicit." This scent was marketed as "The fragrance for the woman who could stop all this, but won’t …"

A 10,000 percent increase in anything in a single day is a serious spike, but less than a month later, the very same word enjoyed an even bigger spike, as dictionary.com also explained:

… The largest increase in lookups for "complicit" this year (up over 11,000%) was on April 5. This time, the spike followed an interview with the real Ivanka Trump in which she attempted to redefine "complicit."

When asked by CBS This Morning’s Gayle King about accusations that she and her husband Jared Kushner are complicit in the actions of her father, Ivanka Trump responded: "If being complicit is wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact, then I’m complicit."

Have a nice day. And try not to be too complicit. Unless you do it the way Ivanka defines it.

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