OXFORD Dictionaries announced it had chosen “youthquake” as International Word of the Year. It bested others in the shortlist—“Antifa,” “brokeflake,” “kompromat,” “white fragility,” “Milkshake Duck” and even “Xennial.”
Youthquake is a significant cultural, political or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people, Oxford said.
To be sure, it’s not a new word at all. The New York Times
said it was coined by former Vogue
editor Diana Vreeland in the 1960s.
Vreeland was describing a different thing altogether—the youth culture of Swinging London in that era. This year, however, usage increased about 400 percent, beginning from the British parliamentary elections in June (younger voters helped deal a blow to the Conservatives) and then spreading to commentary about politics in other places—New Zealand, Australia, the United States, and others.
“It has a very neat symmetry,” Oxford’s Katherine Martin said. “It originally referred to changes in fashion caused by baby boomers coming of age. Now, we’re seeing it emerge in an electoral politics context, as millennials displace the baby boomers.”
Dictionaries choose their words of the year using different bases—frequency of look-ups, reflection of social and political issues, and of the ways language has changed over time. This year, Merriam-Webster chose “feminism.” “Complicit” was dictionary.com’s choice, while “populism” was Cambridge Dictionary’s.
We use dictionaries, online or that thick book we used to consult as young students, because they plainly show us what words really mean. Now it appears they also indicate the trends that words point to—in Oxford’s instance, the ability of the youth to shape domestic and global events. It’s only just a word, its has its share of critics who say they have never even heard it spoken out loud, but it sounds almost hopeful.
Young people are getting mixed press these days. Many tend to oversimplify their traits as entitled, self-absorbed, and lacking grit. But we remain confident they could, in their distinct, unique manner and temperament, make a difference. This is embracing the idea that they could give themselves, and the generations after them, better options than we ever gave ourselves, or them.