The Oxford Dictionaries recently publicized its Word of the Year for 2017 and the runner-up shortlist, and the selections, and a comparison of them with those of Merriam-Webster, are intriguing.
The Oxford Dictionaries (part of Oxford University Press) and Merriam-Webster, publishers of the predominant dictionaries in the United Kingdom and the United States, respectively, select a Word of the Year (and a shortlist of runners-up) each year, as do other dictionary publishers, and the primary criterion for selection is the same: Visitors to the respective publishers’ online dictionaries looked up the chosen word, and those in the shortlist, significantly more often than most other words. (These words, not coincidentally, tend to reflect the sociopolitical zeitgeist and are likely to have lasting cultural significance.)
Two aspects of the shortlists interested me. First, the two lists have no words in common. Second, although I read widely and I was familiar with the circumstances by which nearly all the words on both lists had become so prominent, I had not encountered most of the terms on the Oxford Dictionaries list, though the meanings for some of them are (for me, at least) easily deduced.
The top word, according to the Oxford Dictionaries, is youthquake, which reflects the significance of an unexpectedly strong turnout of younger voters in the 2017 snap election in the United Kingdom and an election in New Zealand later in the year. The term, which refers to a significant change prompted by young people, was actually coined in 1965 by Diana Vreeland, then editor of Vogue magazine, but it has maintained a low profile over the past half-century—and similar rumblings have not occurred in the United States on anywhere near the same scale, hence the lack of a concurrent spike in popularity for the term on this side of the Pond.
The same is true of most of the runners-up. One strong exception is antifa, a loanword from Germany—a truncation of Antifaschistische (antifascist) dating to before World War II and referring to militant leftist political demonstrators—because of the ubiquity of such protestors at demonstrations in the United States. However, broflake (meaning “a politically conservative man easily offended by progressive attitudes”) did not make much of an impression in the United States. (The term is a play on snowflake, which in a sociopolitical context refers pejoratively to supposedly oversensitive liberals by comparing them to a very delicate meteorological phenomenon; it substitutes snow with bro, originally neutral slang for brother but here connoting a boorish conservative man.) Nor did the related term “white fragility,” coined by American academic Robin DiAngelo in 2011 to refer to the general inability of white people to withstand confrontational discussions about racial equality.
Other terms on the Oxford Dictionary shortlist include kompromat, a Russian loanword derived from “compromising material” and denoting sensitive personal information that can be used against a political opponent; newsjacking, meaning “taking advantage of news or current events to promote a brand or product”; and “milkshake duck,” meaning “a social media star who prompts disillusionment when he or she is discovered to have a character flaw”—an allusion to being charmed by an internet meme such as video of a duck drinking a milkshake, only to find out that the duck is a racist.
Then there’s gorpcore, describing a fashion trend featuring utilitarian clothing associated with outdoor recreation; the term is a play on normcore, which denotes pointedly drab, plain attire and is based on the use of the element -core, derived from hardcore. (Gorp, perhaps deriving from a verb meaning “eat greedily,” is another word for “trail mix.”) Finally, unicorn, originally a word for a mythical horned horselike animal (the name literally means “one horn”), pertains to a product featuring rainbow colors, glitter, and/or other colorful enhancements designed to distract consumers from their mundane lives; the term derives from the prominence of such features in children’s toys and entertainment that feature unicorns. (This sense also supplants the use of unicorn to denote something so rare as to be virtually unobtainable, such as an ideal romantic or sexual partner.)