It’s the end of another year: the time when people and clickbait-focused media properties stop to reflect. For several years now, dictionaries and other research institutions have gotten in on choosing a Word of the Year. Trying to choose a single word (or phrase) to encapsulate 365 days is perhaps an impossible task, but that hasn’t stopped many people from trying. And when you take all of these disparate words of the year together, you do get a pretty good idea of the movements and moments that defined 2019.
In this episode of Multilinguish, executive producer Jen Jordan, senior producer Dylan Lyons and producer Thomas Devlin have a roundtable discussion on all the 2019 words of the year we found. We talk about the common themes that emerged, how the words are chosen and what we all chose as our personal words of the year.
Word Of The Year: They | Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Word Of The Year: Climate Emergency | Oxford Languages
Word Of The Year: Climate Strike | Collins Dictionary
Word Of The Year: Upcycling | Cambridge Dictionary
Words Of The Year: Robodebt and Cancel Culture | Macquarie Dictionary
Word Of The Year: Existential | Dictionary.com
Word Of The Year: Respektrente | Society for the German Language
Words Of The Year: Klimajugend, Vague Verte And Onda Verde | Zurich University of Applied Sciences
Word Of The Year: One Team | Basic Knowledge on Contemporary Terminology
Kanji Of The Year: 令 (“Beautiful Harmony”) | Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation
Word Of The Year: 亂 (“Chaos”) | United Daily News
Jen Jordan: From the language app Babbel, this is a bonus New Year’s episode of Multilinguish. I’m executive producer Jen Jordan.
Jen Jordan: Chances are, you’ve encountered a year-end wrap-up of some kind. Time’s Person of the Year, Google’s most searched term, your friend’s top nine Instagram posts. In a time when it feels like a month’s worth of news happened in a single week, finding collective clarity through list-making seems more appealing than ever. Words of the year are a vibe check, if you will, a distilling of the zeitgeist into a single word or phrase.
Jen Jordan: Today I’m joined by producers Thomas Devlin and Dylan Lyons as we share selected words of the year from around the world, and reflect on their meaning for us all as we head into 2020. Before we get started, a reminder to please rate and review Multilinguish wherever you listen, and be sure you’re subscribed so you get new episodes as soon as they’re released.
Jen Jordan: What a year. Thanks for joining me, Thomas, and Dylan to talk about some words of the year. Thomas, I know that you have previously recapped words of the year, and I’m wondering, where do they come from?
Thomas Devlin: I’ve realized they come from a lot of places. The past two years I’ve done some summaries of different words of the year around the world, and now it’s just one of those fads that every single thing will get into it. There’s the marketing word of the year, and it’s like, “User-friendly.” “Synergy.” I don’t care.
Thomas Devlin: But the traditional… I actually assumed, because I’m an Anglocentrist, that it came from an English dictionary first, but I actually found out recently that it’s Germany that had the first word of the year. It’s from this group called the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache.
Jen Jordan: I’ll take your word for it.
Thomas Devlin: Which is the Society for the German Language, and they chose their first word technically in 1971, but then in 1977, they chose their first word of the year, and it was Szene, meaning scene or community, and it was a reference to… I’m going to read the exact summary that I read of it. It’s a reference to a number of news-making communities. Examples: drug scene, gay scene, disco scene.
Jen Jordan: All the scenes.
Thomas Devlin: So I miss the ’70s greatly.
Dylan Lyons: Wow. Those really are the newsmakers, aren’t they?
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. So since 1977, they’ve chosen a word every year, and it’s really in the early 2000s-ish that I would say it really caught on, and it’s kind of a trend, like everything has to have a year-end something. I’m exhausted by it.
Jen Jordan: I do think it is appealing to try to distill the vibe of an entire year down into a single word. So, at the very worst, it’s language getting a news-bite at the end of a busy year, which I’m okay with. The words of the year do come from everywhere, basically, as we’ve discovered.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, it’s hard. I mean, various ones have different levels of authority, but there’s just so many now.
Jen Jordan: I don’t know. I think the marketing word of the year is what I live and die by, Thomas.
Thomas Devlin: I would assume.
Jen Jordan: So we’ve broken up the words of the year into somewhat thematic elements, so Dylan, you have the first section, and all of your words kind of have a theme.
Dylan Lyons: Yes, they do. And that theme probably won’t surprise people, based on news and world events, but it is things related to the environment or the climate. So my first word came from Oxford Dictionary, and it is… Drum roll, please. “Climate emergency,” which they define as a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce our whole climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage.
Dylan Lyons: So this one, it’s interesting. It seems like Oxford doesn’t always go political, but sometimes they do, just because they’re looking at trends in usage, and “climate emergency” was used a hundred times more on average in 2019 than it was the previous year. Part of that might come from a lot of news organizations and politicians have started saying “climate emergency” or “climate crisis” instead of just “climate change,” to stress the urgency. I noticed some of the presidential candidates here doing that. So that’s interesting. Yeah.
Jen Jordan: I do feel like the UN conference this year with Greta and… I feel like that made outsized news compared to what it normally would, given the current, not to make a pun, climate of things.
Dylan Lyons: For sure, yeah. It’s definitely, “Oh, God, heat it up.” Sorry. It’s definitely been on people’s minds as it gets worse and worse, I think. Interestingly, Oxford Dictionary’s editor, Katherine Connor Martin, said, “When we were looking through the evidence, it was just clear that issues relating to the climate were running through all of the different lexical items that we were working with.” So they had other words on the short list, which were “climate action,” “climate denial,” “eco-anxiety,” “extinction,” and “flight shame,” which is when you’re ashamed of flying, or should be shamed for flying because airplanes damage the environment. So yeah, every single word on their shortlist was related to climate.
Jen Jordan: That’s pretty crazy. But I guess, like we said, it’s been in the news so much and talked about so much, I guess it shouldn’t be surprising. What was surprising is the fact that you had so many other climate words on your list from other dictionaries as well.
Dylan Lyons: Right, yeah. It wasn’t just Oxford. It was really all the English dictionaries, which is interesting. So Collins Dictionary had “climate strike,” so basically protests where people leave work or school to join demonstrations, demanding action to stop climate change. That was used also a hundred times more this year than last year. The Collins team decided that, because of usage stats and how language was changing, that that was the most important word. And then Cambridge Dictionary picked one that was also environment-related but slightly different, which was “upcycling,” which is the act of making new items out of old discarded materials. This one was a little less scientific. It was actually chosen by Instagram fans of the Cambridge Dictionary, which I’m sure is an interesting group. But…
Thomas Devlin: What is that supposed to mean?
Dylan Lyons: That wouldn’t be the first account I would go follow, but I might now.
Jen Jordan: All those language finstas the kids have these days.
Dylan Lyons: Right. You know, the kids. But I actually thought their description of the word and why they thought it resonated was interesting. The publishing manager of the dictionary said, “Stopping the progression of climate change, let alone reversing it, can seem impossible at times. Upcycling is a concrete action a single human being can take to make a difference.” So I guess that’s one way that people feel like they can really have an impact in stopping climate change.
Thomas Devlin: What is the difference between upcycling and recycling?
Jen Jordan: I think upcycling implies that you are creating something new from something you would normally toss out, versus recycling is just putting the item back into a cycle of either… I don’t know. I guess it is used again, but it’s usually implying melting it down or doing some other process. Not like a human reusing.
Dylan Lyons: Right. I think upcycling is for you, like you do it for yourself, whereas recycling is you put it in a bin and then someone else does it.
Thomas Devlin: Hopefully. The recycling’s been a bit stressful this year.
Jen Jordan: I do feel like upcycling is a much older term in terms of how trendy it is. I feel like upcycling was very popular in the early 2000s, and I would go to these flea markets or fairs where somebody is making bottle cap tables or wine bottle candles. I don’t know if that’s just me.
Dylan Lyons: No, I was also surprised that it was this year. I feel like I haven’t heard that much about it this year, but maybe I’m just not at the right events.
Thomas Devlin: I just feel like it’s one of those things that a company will put in a description of something, and you just fly past it, where it’s like, “100% eco-friendly upcycled bottle caps have made this dress,” and I’m like, “Okay.” When I’m shopping for dresses online.
Dylan Lyons: Right, right, right.
Thomas Devlin: As as one does.
Dylan Lyons: I just thought it was fun to point out that Cambridge is a bit all over the place with their words of the year, because the word of the year last year was “nomophonia,” which is fear of being without your phone.
Thomas Devlin: I mean, that’s real.
Dylan Lyons: Yeah, no, it’s a thing. I definitely feel it, but…
Thomas Devlin: They do seem to go for words, not so much that you’re hearing all the time, as much as like, “We’re going to take a word and apply it to this year.”
Dylan Lyons: Exactly. Exactly.
Jen Jordan: Yeah.
Dylan Lyons: It’s not like everyone was saying nomophonia, but people were feeling it.
Jen Jordan: I have a stupid question, but I just looked at this word and “no mo phone?” Is that where it’s coming from, or is there actually like a Latin component?
Dylan Lyons: No mo phones!
Thomas Devlin: It’s not nomophobia? Because isn’t that fear?
Dylan Lyons: You would think, but…
Jen Jordan: That’s why I’m wondering if it’s like a
Dylan Lyons: You might be right, Jen.
Jen Jordan: …constructed, like a faux-Latin construction.
Dylan Lyons: Right. I thought it was like “no mo” for mobile phone.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah.
Dylan Lyons: But it might just be “no mo,” like you don’t have your phone, which makes it worse somehow.
Jen Jordan: We’ll do another bonus investigative episode about words of the year.
Thomas Devlin: Wait, I’m actually going to stop that because it is nomophobia.
Dylan Lyons: What?
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. I mean, I wrote the article last year, so I would remember if it was nomophonia.
Jen Jordan: That’s why I thought it was so weird.
Dylan Lyons: Wow. All right. Well, I guess I can’t read. So…
Thomas Devlin: The N and the B are right next to each other. It’s tough.
Dylan Lyons: Okay, so it’s not as fun as Jen thought. It’s not just nomophonia.
Jen Jordan: Well, I feel like this actually segues well into my first word of the year, which comes to us from Macquarie Dictionary in Australia. The word is “cancel culture,” so I’m sorry, Dylan, but you have been canceled.
Dylan Lyons: You’re canceling me?
Jen Jordan: I’m canceling you from this podcast. Cancel culture is an attitude which calls for withdrawal of support, usually collectively on social media, of a public figure or somebody who has acted in a way that is considered to be socially unacceptable. Some people call it “call-out culture,” or “outrage culture,” or just simply “canceled.”
Jen Jordan: The origin of this one actually is believed to be black Twitter, which I think is fun, versus some of the other words we have here that are just older words that are being used in new ways. This is a pretty recent term. It was chosen by committee, I’m assuming the dictionary’s committee, based on a review of words that were actually added to the dictionary that year. So this is actually part of Macquarie’s Dictionary and something that captures the zeitgeist. If I had a dollar for every time I read zeitgeist in these articles, I wouldn’t be here.
Jen Jordan: So I think this is interesting. The honorable mentions this year were “eco-anxiety,” so we have another environmental term, but also with “thicc” with two Cs and no K, the colloquial term for curvaceousness, and my favorite way to describe animals.
Dylan Lyons: I think that really does capture the zeitgeist.
Jen Jordan: Honestly, it captures something.
Thomas Devlin: It’s actually funny because there was an aquarium that posted about a otter and they were canceled online, because they used the word thicc.
Jen Jordan: Because they body-shamed the otter?
Thomas Devlin: Well, it was kind of body shaming, but also people were saying they were appropriating black Twitter speech, and so they decided to put out a full apology. It might’ve been last year, actually, but it does combine those two things.
Dylan Lyons: Yes.
Jen Jordan: I do remember this happening.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah.
Dylan Lyons: Thicc and cancel culture.
Jen Jordan: Very interesting.
Dylan Lyons: Yeah. I definitely think cancel culture is huge. It has been for a few years, I’d say, but particularly with the Me Too movement and various allegations coming out about misconduct.
Thomas Devlin: Definitely crescendoed this year. I’ve just never seen as many pieces about it constantly.
Dylan Lyons: True.
Thomas Devlin: Insert montage here of people saying, “Has cancel culture gone too far?”
Jen Jordan: Well, most recently, Obama called it out when he was talking about choosing candidates, so I do think most recently it’s also been been talked about in that way. So it’s definitely relevant.
Thomas Devlin: “Has cancel culture been canceled?”
Dylan Lyons: Probably not.
Thomas Devlin: I have a lot of feelings about it. My one short little… I’m going to do a diatribe about it. I think it’s kind of depressing, just because cancel culture usually applies to people like Harvey Weinstein or Louis CK doing things that are just illegal. It exists because people feel that they’re not getting justice from other places, and the only option that they have is to go on Twitter and tell people to not support them anymore.
Thomas Devlin: And people end up fine. People who are canceled are fine now, and it’s annoying. They always make a comeback. Like it’s not gone too far. It’s just people feel disempowered by…
Dylan Lyons: Interesting.
Jen Jordan: I find that cancel culture usually ends with somebody getting some sort of buyout anyway, where they get millions of dollars, and then they get to come back in like a year, rehabbed.
Thomas Devlin: Right.
Jen Jordan: So I’m definitely skeptical about it. I also think that it closes us off to a lot of people, and in a lot of cases… There’s a lot of exceptions too, I guess. People do sometimes deserve second chances, and cancel culture really embraces the shutting someone out entirely.
Dylan Lyons: Instead of educating. Yeah.
Jen Jordan: Yeah. But that’s maybe an episode for a different day. One more on my list. So dictionary.com chose “existential” as their word of the year, and I’ll admit I rolled my eyes when I saw this one, but the more I read about it and the more I thought back to my college philosophy classes, I actually feel this is a very fitting term.
Jen Jordan: So “existential,” obviously there’s the philosophical implication with existentialism. It’s concerned with the nature of our being and existence in general. It’s a very old word that comes from Latin, from the verb existare, meaning to come forth, appear, emerge, arise, or to be. It’s chosen by dictionary search volume. So existential, used in a variety of ways in political speeches this year, caused people to research the word a little bit more and understand what it means. I think when you’re thinking about all of the change and a lot of the things that we’re dealing with in the news lately, thinking about the types of people we are and what our purpose is in the face of that actually is… Existential really captures that for me, as serious and dramatic as that sounds. Some of the examples they gave are climate change. Obviously, we’ve heard a lot about that. Gun violence, democratic institutions, pop culture, a lot of these capture who we are in the face of things that are either disturbing or changing in general.
Dylan Lyons: Yeah, it does encapsulate all of the climate words as well, just because that’s one of the big things you think of when you think of existential crisis.
Jen Jordan: Yeah.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. My first thought was just existentialism, having gone through a college existential phase that ended in a tattoo that is now the title of a John Green book, called Turtles All the Way Down.
Dylan Lyons: Oh, boy.
Thomas Devlin: It was quite a time in my life. But I like it, and I think that’s kind of how everyone is feeling. There is the thing where it’s like every generation thinks that they’re the last generation and we’re all going to die, and so I’m clinging to that, where it’s like, “Maybe we’re just young, and we don’t know, and hopefully things will work out…”
Dylan Lyons: This time feels different.
Thomas Devlin: But you weren’t alive.
Jen Jordan: I don’t know. The more I read about history, the better I feel about our current events. But I do think that it is a time of change. A lot is changing at once. And I think existential… I think every generation or every… There’s a time period where people are thinking about it more, where we’re forced to ask the big questions, so I think it’s quite fitting.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. That’s not to say to not take these threats very seriously, but I’m just going to root for humanity.
Dylan Lyons: Yay!
Jen Jordan: Well, on that note, I think it’s time to take a short break, and we’ll be back with more words of the year from around the world.
Jen Jordan: And we’re back. Thomas, I know that you have the monumental task of telling us about the foreign words from around the world. We group-nominated you to try to pronounce all of these different words.
Thomas Devlin: I’m ready for the task.
Jen Jordan: You’re the best at it—
Dylan Lyons: Yeah.
Thomas Devlin: Am I?
Dylan Lyons: You are.
Thomas Devlin: So I mentioned at the top that German is the first word of the year that happened, and so I collected a bunch of different words of the year. There are obviously a lot, and some are not included on this list, but I find them all very fascinating, because when Merriam-Webster chooses their word, which we’ll get to later, I’m like, “I could have predicted that slightly,” but when I see other countries I’m like, “Wow, I didn’t even know that was going on, and now I’ve gotten a one-word summary of your whole year.”
Jen Jordan: That is interesting, because I’m not particularly surprised by any that we’ve gone through so far.
Dylan Lyons: Yes, same.
Thomas Devlin: Yes. Well, to turn to the Society for the German Language, we’ve got Respektrente. Any of you want to take a guess as to what that means?
Jen Jordan: Looks like respect.
Thomas Devlin: Yes.
Dylan Lyons: Respect Trent. Respect Trent.
Thomas Devlin: A man named Trent. Yes, Trent stuffed the ballot box, and he was just sick of everyone treating him so bad. So it is the word respect and Rente, which sounds like English “rent,” but is more “pension,” and it refers to a very specific calamity in the country, which has to do with pensions, which sounds boring but it’s important. The federal labor minister, Hubertus Heil of the Social Democrats, basically went forward in this grand coalition debate, and they were talking about pension, and Heil just is a big advocate for… Pension is very important. People have been working their whole lives. They deserve money so that they can live after they’ve stopped working.
Jen Jordan: What is that like?
Dylan Lyons: Never heard of it.
Thomas Devlin: Who knows? We could…what? I feel like this debate will probably end up popping up here, because it popped up in France as well, and that’s why there are currently protests in Cannes.
Dylan Lyons: Right.
Thomas Devlin: So it’s a very specific thing, and to quote Heil, he said, “Call it a respect pension or a justice pension,” because he kind of gave the name to it. There’s not a lot to talk about there because it’s not something that’s up for interpretation. It’s a very specific event. They also called out the fact that this word is an example of the magnificence of the German language to put together any two concepts to create a new concept.
Jen Jordan: I do love that the most about German.
Thomas Devlin: It is fun. I feel like that’s why so many philosophers have come from Germany, like they can just shove words together and be like, “That’s a word,” and everyone else has to just be like, “Okay.”
Jen Jordan: I do think it’s interesting. It’s obviously a word they chose, not because it’s a new word that entered the dictionary or is being used more in popular culture, but they’re really taking a stand, like they’re creating a conversation around an important issue.
Jen Jordan: Robodebt was the people’s choice for Macquarie in Australia and it’s not the same issue, but it is… I think it refers to people who receive benefits from the government but then are taxed on them, or they receive an overage of benefits and have to refund them back to the government. I think there’s definitely another situation of them using the word of the year to keep a conversation going or start a conversation around that.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, it helps you realize what people are really thinking about. I will also, before moving on from Germany, mention that the second-place winner was “roller chaos.”
Dylan Lyons: Excuse me?
Jen Jordan: What?
Thomas Devlin: With the more German accent. And that refers to the e-scooters that are now taking over Germany.
Dylan Lyons: Oh, my God.
Thomas Devlin: Like they have the United States.
Dylan Lyons: Yes, a lot of our cities have roller chaos as well.
Thomas Devlin: The only reason I live in New York City at this point is because everywhere else has roller chaos.
Jen Jordan: Roller chaos is a delightful term that I want to embrace in 2020.
Thomas Devlin: It’s great because those scooters are coming, and they’ll run us all off the road.
Dylan Lyons: Scooters are coming.
Thomas Devlin: So up next, I’ll go quickly through this one because it’s kind of tied into things you’ve already mentioned, but there are three words from Switzerland, because Switzerland has many different languages so they went with “each community gets its own separate word,” though the French and Italian words are just the same thing. French is vague verte and Italian is onda verde, which both mean “green wave,” and that refers to the tidal wave of climate action that’s coming in place. And Germany, the German one is also related, which is Klimajugend, which just refers to “climate youth,” which is more specific. And so those all… Climate, it was clearly on people’s minds.
Jen Jordan: Klimajugend?
Thomas Devlin: Yes.
Jen Jordan: So like Greta Thunberg?
Dylan Lyons: Yeah, literally Greta.
Thomas Devlin: Greta has had such an outsized impact, and she was just named Person of the Year, and she just keeps saying, “Please just do something instead of talking and giving me awards.”
Thomas Devlin: So these words are proposed by the public, and then there is a list of professionals who choose. Just to be clear. And then next up comes, I’d say, the weirdest one that I’ve seen, which… It comes from Japan, specifically a selection committee of people who publish a word of the year every year. And this one does not actually have a Japanese term associated with it. It’s the English “One Team,” which is this slogan for Japan’s Brave Blossoms, which is a rugby team.
Dylan Lyons: Oh.
Thomas Devlin: Because it was the Rugby World Cup this year, so this could not be further from the experience of Americans.
Jen Jordan: The Brave Blossoms?
Dylan Lyons: Brave Blossoms.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah.
Jen Jordan: The Brave Blossoms.
Dylan Lyons: It’s amazing.
Jen Jordan: Such an amazing term. I love that team name.
Thomas Devlin: It is a great name, because-
Jen Jordan: Especially for a rugby squad.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. Well, it’s the cherry blossoms, the symbol of Japan, and then they’re brave.
Jen Jordan: It’s like the Japanese Steel Magnolias but they’re brave blossoms. I love it.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. But “One Team” specifically was this team. I’m going to impose a little bit of my own imagination, but basically a coach came in and wanted people to unify, but I’m imagining more of a full cinematic movie where the coach comes in, and everyone’s not getting along, and then he has to come in, and then he gives a rousing speech in the locker room. Says, “You know what we are? We’re one team.”
Dylan Lyons: Remember the Titans!
Jen Jordan: The Brave Blossoms.
Thomas Devlin: So kind of like that.
Dylan Lyons: Oh, boy. Okay.
Thomas Devlin: And so this is the word chosen out of the 30 words that they had, and it again doesn’t have a Japanese equivalent. In addition to “One Team,” which was the Japanese word of the year, chosen by the Basic Knowledge on Contemporary Terminology publication.
Thomas Devlin: There’s also a kanji of the year, which is chosen by the Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation. So again, kind of random place that just chose… And they chose the kanji Rei, which means “beautiful harmony” or “order,” which is a vast departure from last year when they chose sai which is also pronounced wazawai, which means disaster. So kind of a contrast.
Dylan Lyons: Oh. The opposite.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, well, 2018 was very much… A lot of natural disasters happened in Japan, so it was particularly apt to them. But this word was also chosen specifically because this year marked the beginning of a new era in Japanese history, which is the Reiwa Era. And that is because they switched emperors. So Akihito, who was emperor for 30 years, which is a wild amount of time for anyone to be in charge of a country, England.
Jen Jordan: They are emperors, so…
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, I mean it’s different. And also the role that the emperor plays is not quite the same as like, pre-World War II.
Jen Jordan: Fair.
Thomas Devlin: But now they have Naruhito, and every single time an emperor changes, there is a new era, and this is the Reiwa Era. Which is fun, I guess.
Jen Jordan: I feel like if you had to choose a word, or a symbol in this case, to kick off your emperorship, your empire, then “beautiful harmony and order” would be the way to go.
Dylan Lyons: That would be the one.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, that’s definitely a good one. It’s chosen by a government cabinet, and they just narrow it down and then announce which one it will be. The last one was Heisei Era, which is “peace everywhere.”
Jen Jordan: Okay.
Thomas Devlin: So, also, I feel like it’s always a bit aspirational. So you just choose one, and then you’re like, “That’s me.”
Jen Jordan: That sets a good tone.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. So there have only been six eras since modern Japan started, which according to this is 1868, so kind of wild.
Jen Jordan: Interesting.
Thomas Devlin: And then lastly, the last one that I have to contrast that is Luàn, which is Taiwanese, and it means “chaos,” which the United Daily News, which is a publication in Taiwan, has a bunch of famous people and also academics, and they just promote words. Like they can put forward whatever they want, and then the public votes on which they think is best.
Thomas Devlin: This one was actually put forward by two people, Richard Lee Chia-Tung, who is a professor, honorary professor at the National Tsing Hua University, and also Ang Lee.
Dylan Lyons: Oh.
Thomas Devlin: Of Life of Pi and Brokeback Mountain directing fame. So…
Dylan Lyons: So that’s how you know it’s a good one.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. And chaos, I think, is somewhat self-explanatory.
Dylan Lyons: I would say it’s a valid assessment of this year.
Jen Jordan: I mean, so Taiwan has chaos. Japanese has beautiful harmony and order. The rest of the English-speaking world is talking about climate crisis, and what was it? Germany is talking about pensions? Does that about sum it up?
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, that’s the map of the world. That’s your year in review.
Dylan Lyons: There you go.
Jen Jordan: Sounds about right. So now the last word we’re talking about is Merriam-Webster’s word of the year. And we saved this one for last because I think we have a little bit to talk about here, specifically as it relates to a few things we have talked about. So from Merriam-Webster, we have the word “they,” which is, of course, a pronoun. And what Merriam-Webster had to say about this is, “English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like ‘everyone’ or ‘someone.’ And as a consequence, ‘they’ have been used for this purpose for over 600 years.” So when they’re talking about “they,” they mean the singular personal pronoun “they” instead of saying he or she.
Jen Jordan: It’s interesting to note, because we have talked a lot on this podcast and also on Babbel Magazine about other languages and how they handle a singular personal pronoun. And there’s a few languages that completely avoid this. They have only one pronoun to refer to a person. Then there’s a few countries around the world that have pronouns that are gaining traction in terms of usage. The ones that are only one pronoun… Indonesian has, I think it’s dia. I don’t actually know how it’s pronounced. I didn’t look it up beforehand. And Turkish, it’s just o, which is nice and simple.
Dylan Lyons: Yes.
Jen Jordan: It makes me want to learn Turkish, honestly. The most famous one I think that we talk about here is Swedish. Hen is the gender-neutral singular pronoun that they have instituted. I think it’s been in use since the 60s, although it’s been gaining a lot more traction in the last 10 years, even I think going so far as to use it in government documents.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah. Hen is a very interesting example, particularly because “they” already existed, and so people have just been able to use that to meet their ends, whereas hen did not exist.
Dylan Lyons: Invented.
Jen Jordan: Yeah.
Thomas Devlin: So that seems like an even harder change to make, because as mentioned, “they…” Non-binary identities have been around for a long time, but “they,” even as just if you just don’t know someone’s gender, and you want to say like, “I don’t know who they are,” because you’re just hearing about someone… Even that has been contentious, though.
Jen Jordan: Yeah. The other one that’s gaining traction that’s, I think, used fairly prominently is in German Sie, which I believe is this singular feminine pronoun and also used for groups of people. So it’s similar to “they,” but “they” doesn’t really have a gender connotation one way or the other for us in English. Whereas in Germany it can refer to using groups of people or a single female. I do think it’s interesting to note that Merriam-Webster did accept “they” into their dictionary later this year as a non-binary term to refer to a single person. So it did make quite a bit of news. It’s not just a thing that popped up out of interest. It’s something they made news with themselves.
Dylan Lyons: And a couple of years ago the Associated Press said journalists can use “they” in certain circumstances as well.
Jen Jordan: Yeah.
Thomas Devlin: AP Stylebook fans say what? Okay.
Dylan Lyons: Crickets, crickets.
Jen Jordan: Yeah. So I think that’s actually pretty cool. It’s interesting they didn’t go with an environmental term. I do think another dictionary did have “non-binary” as their runner-up.
Dylan Lyons: Yeah, I saw that.
Jen Jordan: It was dictionary.com, so I think that is interesting to note as well. But they do have a list of 10 words that are sort of words they highlight at Merriam-Webster. I think it’s interesting to note that about half of these are direct political… Obviously, politics made a lot of news in the US, and their word at Merriam-Webster, I should note, is driven by the number of look-ups. So look-ups for “they” increased by over 300% over the previous year. And all of these words were selected because of the volume of searches that are happening on Merriam-Webster. So the political ones… We don’t have to go… I think most of you will recognize them, but “quid pro quo,” “impeach,” “snitty,” which is a note from the Mueller hearings. I had actually didn’t remember that one.
Dylan Lyons: I don’t, yeah.
Thomas Devlin: I don’t remember that either.
Dylan Lyons: No, I don’t know what that is.
Jen Jordan: And then there’s…
Thomas Devlin: “Snitty” sounds like something your mother would describe something as. It’s like, “Oh, they’re rather snitty.”
Jen Jordan: Yeah, I think it’s a term from… It’s like a mid-century term that comes from “snitch” or something.
Dylan Lyons: Of course.
Jen Jordan: So it was kind of funny. Another one of the political connotations is “tergiversation.” Did you guys remember this?
Thomas Devlin: No.
Dylan Lyons: Is that related to the conversation you have at Thanksgiving? Over turkey?
Jen Jordan: That’s what I thought, right? Apparently the WaPo columnist, George Will, used it in a column at the beginning of this year, which feels like five years ago now, talking about… The definition is basically like, not being straightforward on purpose.
Dylan Lyons: Oh.
Jen Jordan: Like misleading, which is perfect for politics, but also seems like you’re just using fancy words.
Thomas Devlin: Yeah, we get it, George Will. You have a thesaurus.
Dylan Lyons: Yeah, right.
Jen Jordan: Exactly. And then “exculpate,” also a word that popped up a lot in the Mueller hearings. So those are the political themes, but there were some others that were worth noting. So the first one I noted in their top 10 was “crawdad.” Did you guys know what a crawdad is?
Dylan Lyons: It’s like a little, like a… It’s not a lobster, but like a little…
Thomas Devlin: It’s kind of a lobster-ish thing.
Dylan Lyons: Thing. Sea creature.
Thomas Devlin: It’s like…
Dylan Lyons: River creature.
Thomas Devlin: Aren’t they sometimes like “crawfish” or…
Jen Jordan: They’re crayfish.
Thomas Devlin: Ah.
Jen Jordan: At least growing up in the Northeast, we called them crayfish.
Thomas Devlin: I think there’s some regional thing.
Jen Jordan: Mm-hmm.
Thomas Devlin: Because it’s like crayfish, crawfish, crawdad…
Jen Jordan: Crawdad is definitely the Southern term, or crawfish.
Thomas Devlin: Okay. I was watching Anthony Bourdain, and they were doing a crawfish boil, I think. And then they were like, “Do not say crawdad in this home.”
Jen Jordan: Yeah, I don’t know where the divide is, but crawdad and crawfish, I think, are definitely more Southern. We call them C-R-A-Y fish in the Northeast. So it’s definitely interesting. And yeah, they look like little lobsters. They’re delicious with drawn butter.
Thomas Devlin: Oh, so why is that word…?
Jen Jordan: So it’s from the book, Where the Crawdads Sing.
Thomas Devlin: Oh.
Jen Jordan: Which I figured you would be all over, Thomas.
Thomas Devlin: I haven’t read it. I don’t know why. It’s been big.
Dylan Lyons: Yeah.
Thomas Devlin: The Reese Witherspoon book club chose it, and it was out for a while, but then all of a sudden it became one of the best-selling books of the year, because Reese Witherspoon is the new Oprah, I guess. But I definitely have seen that cover a lot of places.
Jen Jordan: Yeah. So that drove a lot of searches early on in the year. “Egregious” is a word that came up a lot.
Dylan Lyons: It’s a good word.
Jen Jordan: Yeah, it is a good word, actually. I believe that the reason it received the spike of searches that it did is because of the Boeing 737 Max, because apparently that was a quote that one of the employees used to describe the disasters.
Jen Jordan: So another term is “clemency.” The big event that drove searches for this is the commutation of Cyntoia Brown’s life sentence, so she got out after 15 years instead of serving for life. It was the governor of Tennessee that granted her clemency.
Jen Jordan: This is a good one for you, Thomas. “The.”
Thomas Devlin: Oh.
Jen Jordan: Because the Ohio State University wanted to trademark the word “the.”
Dylan Lyons: Seriously?
Thomas Devlin: This is my favorite language story of the year, actually. I just find it so funny, because they actually sell stuff at the Ohio State University with… Just a hat that has “the” on it. I want to get it as a gift for myself, but also we have a co-worker who went to the Ohio State University, and I don’t want to give her the satisfaction.
Jen Jordan: It’s just one of those like trademark… I don’t know. I think it’s ridiculous.
Dylan Lyons: Like what were they thinking?
Jen Jordan: It’s ridiculous.
Thomas Devlin: The trademark failed, but weirder things have been trademarked, really.
Jen Jordan: Yeah. That’s hot. I owe Paris Hilton $1 billion now. The last one on the list is “camp,” which refers to the Met Gala theme.
Thomas Devlin: Ah, yes.
Jen Jordan: Camp and drag, world of drag.
Thomas Devlin: Did either of you go to the exhibit?
Dylan Lyons: I did not. You went, right?
Thomas Devlin: I did. I think I went away knowing less about what camp is. I feel like you must look this up, and the dictionary is like, “I don’t know.”
Dylan Lyons: It’s whatever you want it to be.
Thomas Devlin: It’s not, though. It’s the most specific concept, that also you cannot put into words, because it’s almost as soon as you try to describe it, they’re like, “That’s no longer camp, now that you’ve said it.” Like okay.
Jen Jordan: I feel like a lot of the coverage of the Met Gala was like, “I don’t know. Is what she’s wearing actually camp?”
Dylan Lyons: Yeah, true, true.
Jen Jordan: Like a lot of thinkpieces around what actually is camp and who is camp and who’s not.
Thomas Devlin: Well, next year they’ve chosen the theme of Time. So look forward to that.
Dylan Lyons: Time?
Thomas Devlin: Time. If they don’t invite Flava Flav to show up with a massive clock, they’re not doing it right.
Jen Jordan: Oh, boy. So that’s about all of the words we have. I was wondering, if you guys had to choose a word of the year, do you have any ideas?
Dylan Lyons: Do you want… Go ahead.
Thomas Devlin: So this is a weird one, and you two will not like it. But I’m going to go with “bird” is the word of the year.
Dylan Lyons: Oh, no.
Thomas Devlin: So unfortunately, I realized that actually, the year of the bird, not the Zodiac one, but just a bunch of publications did one when it was 2018. But my personal year of the bird was 2019, because I’ve been trying to reconnect with nature in a way, because while many of the words we’ve gone over are like “climate catastrophe…” That’s not actually one of them. That’s very negative, and I found myself being too paralyzed in fear for the future. And so I’ve chosen this year instead to try to look at, not just necessarily the positive relationship between man and nature, but the more broad, what are the ways we interact with nature? And birding is one way to interact with nature that is not harmful to either party, and is in fact a lot of fun.
Jen Jordan: Yeah, we’ve heard.
Dylan Lyons: Wow, really selling it.
Thomas Devlin: How to Do Nothing also came out this year and was a big book, and that was a lot about how birding can help you disconnect from the chaos of life.
Jen Jordan: That’s okay. You don’t have to justify it. This is your word of the year.
Thomas Devlin: I will continue.
Jen Jordan: What about you, Dylan?
Dylan Lyons: So actually it’s funny, because mine is this similar idea, but not birding. Trust me. It is “self-care,” which I think has been around for a few years now and pretty popular, but especially for me, it resonated this year, because I think as a reflection of all the other words that are chaotic and the climate and existential crises and everything crazy happening in politics, I’ve had to find ways to unwind and practice self-care and know when I’ve listened to enough political podcasts for one week or whatever the case may be. So yeah, I just found, as kind of a response to everything else that’s going on and the chaos, as Taiwan put it, that self-care is particularly important this year.
Thomas Devlin: And you, Jen?
Jen Jordan: So it’s kind of ironic because I’m the oldest person here, but my word of the year, I think, would be vibe.
Dylan Lyons: Oh.
Jen Jordan: I feel like-
Thomas Devlin: That’s such a good answer.
Jen Jordan: I know.
Dylan Lyons: She’s just vibing.
Jen Jordan: You can check the vibe, you can have a vibe check, you can vibe with something. I feel like it describes a lot of the checking-in we’ve been doing with ourselves, in relation to everything that’s happening in the world, but also just internally, like continually checking in and seeing how you feel and connecting with other people or not connecting. Also being in New York City, it kind of fits too. It’s definitely a vibe.
Dylan Lyons: I like it.
Thomas Devlin: I do too.
Jen Jordan: Cool.
Thomas Devlin: We’re just vibing.
Jen Jordan: We’re vibing. Vibing into two thousand… Wow. 2020.
Dylan Lyons: The Roaring Twenties.
Thomas Devlin: Sounds like a fake year still.
Jen Jordan: It does. Well, happy New Year, guys.
Dylan Lyons: Happy New Year.
Jen Jordan: Cheers.
Jen Jordan: Multilinguish is produced by the content team at Babbel. We are…
Thomas Devlin: Thomas Moore Devlin.
David Doochin: David Doochin.
Steph Koyfman: Steph Koyfman.
Dylan Lyons: Dylan Lyons.
Jen Jordan: And I’m Jen Jordan. Ruben Vilas makes us sound good. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao. You can read more about today’s episode topic and more on Babbel Magazine. Just visit babbel.com/magazine. Say hi on social media by finding us @BabbelUSA, all one word. Finally, please rate and review this podcast. We really appreciate it.
Thomas Devlin: All right, this is public domain, so don’t worry about it.
Jen Jordan: What is this?
Dylan Lyons: What are you doing?
Thomas Devlin: Thank you to our listeners for being along with us over this past 2019. We launched this podcast this year.
Dylan Lyons: Oh, my God.
Thomas Devlin: We’ve learned a lot.
Jen Jordan: This is really sweet.
Thomas Devlin: Our sound quality has improved so very much, and we just appreciate that you’ve taken the time to spend perhaps your New Year’s Eve, perhaps you’re listening a different day, with us here at Babbel. And so in 2020, we hope you’ll think about ways to use language to connect with others, people that you know, people that you don’t, and just have a happy time together.
Dylan Lyons: I’m going to cry.
Jen Jordan: Is “Auld Lang Syne” actually in public domain? Are we going to have to pay $1 billion for this?
Thomas Devlin: It says public domain in the YouTube.
Dylan Lyons: Oh, my God.
Thomas Devlin: So I’m just going to say it.
Dylan Lyons: I’ll go ahead and call Legal.
Thomas Devlin: The sound is getting louder, so I’m just going to… All right.
Jen Jordan: Just drown us out.
Thomas Devlin: From here at Babbel, signing off.
Dylan Lyons: Happy New Year.
Jen Jordan: Happy New Year.