Analysis: the annual declaration of a Word Of the Year are a useful way to sum up global thinking and key emerging themes

By Chris MulhallWaterford Institute of Technology

Words are powerful objects. Their use provides context and their definition gives explanation and clarification. Sometimes a single word is powerless in expressing the magnitude of an event. This does not represent a failure of language, but is a mere reflection of the complexity of what it is trying to describe.

For the first time since 2004, Oxford Dictionaries chose not to issue a single Word of the Year (WOTY) due to the seismic global events of 2020. Other dictionaries took a different viewpoint. Collins Dictionaries named lockdown as its WOTY for 2020, while the American dictionary publisher, Merriam-Webster opted for pandemic. Can a single word sum up a year or are words sometimes not enough?

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From EuroNews, lockdown is named Collins Dictionary's 2020 word of the year

WOTYs are a useful mechanism for measuring the pulse of global thinking and capture the key emerging themes of a given year. The chronology of WOTYs show the world as a more light-hearted place in the mid-2000s. Oxford Dictionaries' first three WOTYs (2004-2006) were chav, sudoku and bovvered. Popular culture terms are by their nature evanescent but their supremacy in these years point to more innocent and exploratory times. Technology and lifestyle habits have also provided vocabulary of humourous relief with selfie, photobomb and binge watch showing the ubiquity of technology in life in the early-to-mid 2010s.

Choices in recent years show a discernible seriousness in our thinking and use of language. The centrality of environmental topics is notable, taking for example, climate emergency (2019) and toxic (2018) selected by Oxford Dictionaries as the WOTY, with Collins Dictionaries selecting climate strike (2019) and single-use (2018). Before this, the language of global political events underscored much of our collective curiosity and introspection of language as Collins Dictionaries listed fake news and Brexit as its WOTYs in 2017 and 2016, with Oxford Dictionaries choosing post-truth in 2016.

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From RTÉ News, 'Single-use' is named 2018 word of the year by Collins Dictionary

Apart from highlighting the most popular word of a given year, what else does the WOTY tell us? Firstly, the ascendancy to the mantle of WOTY is driven largely by people's curiosity and usage of words. In many cases, people revert to dictionaries, predominantly electronic formats these days, to ascertain word meanings – sometimes for the most common words. In the transition from paper to digital, dictionaries stayed venerable, remaining a consistent reference point in the face of novelty and uncertainty.

Technology is now central to language analysis and the digitisation of dictionaries has enabled a greater window of discovery into our language habits. In many ways, technology has changed the paradigm of interaction between dictionaries and users. In the print dictionary era, dictionaries had an executive function to provide language information to users. Now, dictionary users search queries reveal to language analysts and lexicographers which words and phrases populate our thinking. The electronic dictionary has facilitated an authentic, real-time insight into language issues, something outside the remit of its paper equivalent.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Pádraig Ó Mianáin, Chief Editor of the new Concise English-Irish Dictionary, on the first major English-Irish dictionary in over 60 years

Secondly, a WOTY is a statement of relevance. A cursory look through the last decade of WOTYs reveal some words of transient headlining importance and others of a more discrete, but permanent nature. Here, the WOTY lists act as a moral and ethical agenda of the ailments of the modern world as concerns about environmental damage and the veracity of political statements rise to the surface. It is here dictionaries have empowered society through the WOTY to make its feelings known. A single word can now voice the displeasure of millions in a largely unprecedented way. Language, as always, remains a vehicle for change even on a global scale.

A more subtle outcome of the WOTY event is its revelation of certain language habits synonymous in our everyday expression. Acronyms, blending and coinages are a burgeoning part of WOTY lists and come from the infinite reservoir of language. What is behind their growing popularity? To some extent, their emergence stems from the need for shortened language, such as acronyms and emojis, to communicate expediently on technological platforms. Blending and coinages have the underlying motivation of the human capacity to describe novel concepts in linguistically creative ways.

READ: What's in a word? How dictionaries reflect the world around us

One of the most popular blends in recent years has been Brexit (Britain's exit), whereas coinages, also called neologisms, are lexical innovations for new concepts. 2017 saw Oxford Dictionaries title the coinage youthquake (social change through young people) as its WOTY with other recent examples being mansplaining (to explain something in a condescending way) and milkshake duck (something initially positive but ultimately negative).

Dictionaries and the WOTY have an important future function. Collectively, they will be an axial point for understanding the nature of social change. Retrospectively, they will act as a measure of how far language and society have progressed this change. Ludwig Wittgenstein said that "language disguises thought", but the WOTY is, and will be, an annual, transparent reminder of how language resonates our thoughts on life and the world.

Dr Chris Mulhall is a Lecturer in Modern Languages at Waterford Institute of Technology


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ