The Word of the Year for 2016

By Mark Nichol

Each year, several major lexicographers release their word of the year—the term that, among the most frequently looked-up words during the previous twelve months, has most prominently captured the zeitgeist. This post discusses the 2016 selections.

Merriam-Webster selected surreal, a word apropos for a year in which various seemingly irrational, inexplicable events occurred. The dictionary company announced that a significant spike in the number of people who looked up the word occurred three times during the year, including after Election Day in the United States.

Surreal was coined about a hundred years ago by a group of artists responding to Sigmund Freud’s recent explication of the concept of the unconscious mind; they called their movement surrealism, and the art the surrealists produced was marked by fantastic and incongruous imagery or elements. The prefix sur-, meaning “above” or “over,” is seen in other words such as surname (“beyond name”) and surrender (“give over”).

Among the other words Merriam-Webster noted as being frequently looked up during the year include revenant, meaning “one who returns”; the attention was prompted by its use in the title of a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a man left for dead who seeks vengeance on those who abandoned him.

Another is feckless, meaning “ineffective” or “irresponsible.” Derived from the Scots word feck, an alteration of effect, the word gained attention when Mike Pence, the US vice president–elect, uttered it in a debate against his Democratic Party rival, Tim Kaine. (Feck and feckful are now obsolete, and feckless is rare.)

Icon, ultimately from the Greek verb eikenai, meaning “resemble,” was yet another; the death of the musician who (usually) called himself Prince (born Prince Rogers Nelson) prompted lookups for this word meaning “idol” or “symbol.” (Interestingly, for a time he employed a glyph, or symbol, in place of his name.) Words with icon as a root include iconography, meaning “depiction of icons,” and iconoclast, meaning “destroyer of icons.”

The Oxford English Dictionary chose as its Word of the Year post-truth, signifying the growing trend toward subordination of objective truth to appeals to emotion and personal belief when weighing decisions. (In American English, the prefix post is usually not hyphenated, but British English tends to retain the hyphen in such usage, and usage of this word in the United States tends to follow that style.)

Meanwhile, the word selected by Dictionary.com to represent the preceding year is xenophobia, meaning “fear or hatred of strangers or the unknown.” (In Greek, xenos means “stranger”—but also “guest”—and phobia is derived from the Greek word phobos, meaning “fear.”)

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6 Responses to “The Word of the Year for 2016”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Very interesting, thank you:
    >>Meanwhile, the word selected by Dictionary.com to represent the preceding year is xenophobia, meaning “fear or hatred of strangers or the unknown.”<<
    That first root leads us to some others, including complete antonyms, and some synonyms:
    { xenophile, xenophilia, xenophobe, xenobiology, xenon }
    "Philadelphia" means "the city of brotherly love.
    "Xenophilia" mean "love of strangers", or at least friendliness to them.
    "Xenodelphia" would be the "city of love of strangers", and so I guess that "Xenophobedelphia" would be ???
    "Xenophobeopolis" would be the "city of fear of strangers".
    Years and years ago, that could have been Kathmandu, or any city in Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, medieval Japan or medieval Korea, or in any country that was a "hermit kingdom".
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Your sentence is either garbled, misleading, or mistaken, and I can’t figure out which: “In American English, the prefix post is usually not hyphenated, but British English tends to retain the hyphen in such usage, and usage of this word in the United States tends to follow that style.”

  • venqax

    That’s a little confused. The “city” isn’t there in the word at all. Philos means loving and adelphos is brother. So brother-loving or loving brother, “city of” by implication. Xenodelphia would be something akin to “stranger brother” or brother-stranger.

    I think the bit about the hyphen just means that while the prefix post is not normally followed by a hyphen in SAE, in this case SAE follows the British convention of hyphenation. Why we don’t know. Unfortunately, language doesn’t abhor inconsistency nearly as much as it should.

  • Cesar

    I’m just glad none of them chose an emoji this time around… -__-

  • Dale A. Wood

    “city of fear of strangers”.
    O.K., Venqax, so go with the names “Xenophobeopolis” for a city full of people who are fearful of strangers, and “Xenophileopolis” for a city full of people who are considerate of strangers.
    Then “Xenophilephobeopolis” might be self-contradictory and a weird place to live, and maybe also “Xenophobephileopolis”.
    Anyway, I have lived in some places that were unfriendly to strangers to a self-contradictory degree. It was quite unpleasant.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Thank you for mentioning this: “Feck and feckful are now obsolete, and feckless is rare.”
    We need to boost the status of “feckless” by using it more concerning the millions who qualify for it.
    Then people could say bad things about feckless people without using any profanity. This would be a step in the right direction.

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