The 2010s have been such a wide-spanning, exhausting decade that it seems almost outrageous to confine the past 10 years to just a few words.
But that’s exactly what the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has done. Each year, the dictionary — typically considered the word’s most popular and influential record of the English language — picks one “Word of the Year.”
These words range from possibly trivial — “on fleek” and “lumbersexual” were both finalists for the 2015 Word of the Year — to powerfully vast, such as in 2006 when “carbon-neutral” earned the title. But whether they’re internet slang, socially conscious ideas or something else entirely, each year’s winner always serves as a sign of the times.
With that in mind, here are the OED’s Word of the Year winners from the past 10 years, and what the tell us about the wild, always-eventful decade we’ve just experienced.
Refudiate wasn’t even a real word before Sarah Palin decided it should be. The former Alaskan governor was widely mocked when she tweeted the verb in November of 2010, using the nonexistent word to discuss the controversial New York Islamic Cultural Center that some referred to as a “Ground Zero Mosque.”
Palin asked Muslim Twitter users to “pls refudiate,” seeming to combine the words “refute” and “repudiate.” But the Oxford Dictionary later decided she was onto something, citing Palin as it added the word to its dictionary with the explanation that, “‘refudiate more or less stands on its own, suggesting a general sense of ‘reject.'”
2011: Squeezed middle
Defined by the OED as “the section of society regarded as particularly affected by inflation, wage freezes and cuts in public spending,” the term “squeezed middle” came at a time when many families the U.S. were still feeling the effects of the 2008 financial crisis.
The same goes for in the U.K., where British Labour Party politician Ed Miliband first coined the term while discussing the country’s “broad middle class,” which he said was “financially hard-pressed.”
2012 was the year that “GIFing” became a verb — at least, according to the OED. GIFs have existed as a file format since the ’80s, but it took decades before they became the omnipresent pop-culture tool they are today. The OED said that the ability to GIF nearly anything allowed the files to evolve from a meme to a “tool with serious applications including research and journalism.”
Is there even anything to explain here? The word “selfie” actually traces back to an Australian chat room in 2002, when a drunken man used the term to describe the way he took his, low-quality solo photo.
A decade later, the word was smack-dab in the middle of the social media boom — in fact, Time magazine named selfie sticks one of its top inventions of the year in 2014. Today, even your grandparents probably post selfies to Facebook — and maybe you have the Oxford English Dictionary to thank for that.
With the recent influx of regulation changes, scientific studies and tragic deaths, “vape” could’ve just as easily been 2019’s word of the year. But the term was just as important in 2014, when the e-cigarette industry officially became a $2 billion business. That number has since grown to nearly $30 billion, making the word’s selection an incredibly poignant — and predictive — decision.
No, you’re not reading that wrong. The OED’s 2015 word of the year was 😂, or the emoji officially known as, “Face with Tears of Joy.” In picking its first-ever non-word to represent a year, the dictionary said that 😂emoji “best reflected the ethos, mood and preoccupations of 2015.”
That’s because, according to the Oxford University Press, emojis more than tripled in use between 2014 and 2015, with the 😂 emoji making up more nearly one-fifth of those interactions. Still, we wouldn’t blame you if the idea of an emoji being in the dictionary makes you 😂😂😂.
This one might feel obvious in the year that brought us Brexit and the inauguration of President Trump, two events that were steeped in a completely new type of political animosity — much of which relied heavily on the use of social media to share information and opinions.
“Fueled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time,” the OED said in its announcement of the word.
Beating out political buzzwords like “Antifa,” “white fragility” and “broflake,” 2017’s winner meant less in America than it did in the U.K., where millennial voters organized heavily behind the country’s Labour party.
The word, described as a “significant cultural, political or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people,” was also used at the time to describe anti-Trump protests by young American voters, as well as the election of millennial-aged world leaders, such as Jacinda Ardern, who became prime minister of New Zealand at age 37.
The #MeToo Movement got its start in 2017, but by 2018, conversations about toxic masculinity, toxic workplaces and toxic cultures were rampant across every part of society. The term worked its way into Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, employee walk-outs at tech companies and of course, a major reckoning for many of Hollywood’s most powerful actors and producers.
But the OED was also quick to advise that the term “toxic” didn’t just apply to institutions — it was far more widespread. “Toxic relationships are not exclusive to the workplace, however, and whether its partners, parents or even politicians, this year has seen so much discussion of ‘poisonous’ relationships across our society,” the Oxford University Press wrote.
2019: Climate emergency
16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg might have summed up 2019’s term best in September, when she delivered a scathing warning to world leaders at a United Nations climate summit. “People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing,” Thunberg said. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
Those comments came during a year in which the looming threat of global warming took center stage, with an estimated 4 million people — many of them teenagers — participating in September’s global climate strikes alone. Those protests, and the global climate accords taking place worldwide, likely contributed to the phrase “climate emergency” being searched more than 100 times more often in 2019 than the year before.
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