PREST: What do the 'words of the year' for past decade say about us?

Gadzooks we’re only four days away from the end of the decade. The decade!

How will we remember the 2010s when we look back in 50 years? One great way to chart change is to follow the evolution of language. The words we use change, just as we as a society change.

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The Oxford dictionary gives us a glimpse into our souls with its annual word of the year, an attempt to come up with one word every year that sums up the spirit of the year through its aptness, likely with a resulting increase in usage.

Let’s have a look back at the words of the year over the last decade and see what they communicate about what the 2010s were like.

2010: Refudiate

Oh my goodness what a great way to start this list. Not because it’s a great word. In fact, it’s not a real word at all. The dictionary chose this “word” – a mistaken combination of refuse and repudiate – basically to make fun of the most famous user of the word, American politician Sarah Palin. Remember Sarah Palin! She was fun – it’s a shame Tina Fey had to murder her. The decade started with such promise, didn’t it? Free from modern-day worries, we could spend all our time refudiating the biggest dolts of the day.

2011: Squeezed middle

I don’t recall this term gaining widespread use, but it is defined as the phenomenon of people on average incomes having less money than previous generations to buy the things they need because rising costs have not been matched by increases in pay. Boy, that doesn’t sound fun. I sure am glad we got that all fixed up back in 2011.

2012: GIF

Now we’re talking! The word of the year in 2012 was those little mini videos that my mom now includes with every text message she sends (*insert Urkel “Did I do that?!” gif). Can we go back to 2012, when the only conflict we had was whether to pronounce it jiff or giff? No one ever died in that fight. (I actually wouldn’t be surprised if someone did die in that fight. But seriously? Jiff? You must be joking. I mean goking.)

2013: Selfie

Oh, getting a little preachy here, are we dictionary? Us humans were getting a little too self-absorbed for you in 2013, were we? The word selfie entered the Oxford dictionary in 2013, but the concept of taking a photo of yourself is as old as the concept of cameras. One of the first photos ever taken of a human was one that photography pioneer Robert Cornelius took of himself in 1839. He then taped it to his door with the message “Felteth cute, might deleteth later.”

2014: Vape

Well, vaping was a newfangled thing this decade, wasn’t it? I’m not convinced, however, that when the virtual historical textbooks of the 2080s get to the biggest trends of the 2010s, they’ll lead with a hologram of a balding bearded guy hiding a little plastic stick in his sleeve as he lets out a cloud of strawberry-scented steam.  

2015: ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ emoji

Wow, what a fun decade this was! Selfies, GIFs, and now the stodgy old dictionary has made an emoji – once considered the smiling sign of our dumb collective demise – the word of the year?! LOL. We’re halfway through the decade now, what could possibly happen in 2016 to derail this wacky techno-crazy wonderland?

2016: Post-truth

Oh. Right. That. Post-truth is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The 2080 history books will definitely have much to say about the time the most powerful country in the world elected as president a reality TV personality who can effortlessly pack more than 100 lies into one speech. Well, we’ll have to see about those history books ... it’s possible that, if the Republican party gets its way, in 50 years a hologram of Donald Trump will still be the president.

2017: Youthquake

Mmmm, my favourite flavor of Dairy Queen Blizzard. The DQ Youthquake tastes like Minecraft and confidence.

This, actually, is another term I hadn’t heard before assembling this list. It’s defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.” It’s a combination of the words “youth” and “earthquake,” the dictionary went on to explain, helpfully. You should always be prepared for the next youthquake – when the BIG ONE hits, remember to drop, cover, and hold your phone horizontally for Instagram.

2018: Toxic

The dictionary notes a big increase in the frequency of this word in 2018, used both literally and metaphorically.

Literal: Wow, the president and his gross hair are toxic.

Metaphorical: Wow, the president and his gross heirs are toxic.

2019: Climate emergency

Well, here we are. The decade has gone from celebrating round smiley faces crying tears of joy to a toxic wasteland where charlatans can sell massive hordes of people obvious lies as long as the lies look convincing on Facebook. But how do we convince those hordes that climate disaster is coming soon? That question seems to be the one that may dominate the next decade.

Let’s finish off with one more word: hope. As in, I hope your 2010s were less a toxic wasteland, and more tears of joy emoji. And I hope we, and the planet, survive the 2020s in relatively decent shape. I’m counting on not just a youthquake, but also a youthicane, a youthnado, a youthnami! And, failing that, I hope no one on my new moon colony likes to vape.

Happy New Decade!

Andy Prest is the sports editor for the North Shore News and writes a biweekly humour/lifestyle column. aprest@nsnews.com

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