Several reputable dictionaries have revealed their respective Words of the Year for the year just past.
For Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word is “they.” It’s not a usual candidate for such a distinction—after all, “they” is a simple personal pronoun. Still, lookups for the word increased by 313 percent in 2019 from 2018, and the evolving use of the word has “been the subject of increasing study and commentary in recent years.”
According to Merriam-Webster, the English language does not have a gender-neutral singular pronoun (we always use he or she); “they” has been used to refer to one person whose gender identity is nonbinary. In fact, he American Psychological Association, through its blog, has recommended that the singular “they” be preferred in professional writing over “he or she” when referring to a person whose gender is unknown or who prefers “they.”
For the Oxford Dictionary, 2019’s Word of the Year is “climate emergency.” This is defines as a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it.
Oxford says that its Word of the Year is a word or expression that we can see has attracted a great deal of interest over the last 12 months. The Word of the Year reflects the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance.
According to Oxford, its research reveals a “demonstrable escalation in the language people are using to articulate information and ideas concerning the climate.”
Related to “climate emergency” is the choice of dictionary.com, “existential.” According to its web site, “existential...captures a sense of grappling with the survival—literally and figuratively—of our planet, our loved ones, our ways of life.”
The word “also inspires us to ask big questions about who we are and what our purpose is in the face of our various challenges—and it reminds us that we can make choices about our lives in how we answer those questions.”
As a word and theme, “existential” was prominent among global topics in 2019: Climate change, gun violence, and democratic institutions. It also popped up in lighter stories in popular culture, signaling its place in the cultural zeitgeist.
For Cambridge Dictionary, “upcycling” is the word for 2019. It is defined as the activity of making new furniture, objects, etc. out of old or used things or waste material.
Searches for the word rose by 181 percent since December 2011, when it was first added to the online dictionary. In the last year alone, searches doubled. Cambridge says it believes its fans resonated not with “upcycling” the word, per se, but “upcycling” the positive idea behind it.
“Stopping the progression of climate change, let alone reversing it, can seem impossible at times,” the dictionary said. “Upcycling is a concrete action a single human being can take to make a difference.” There is a momentum in individual actions to beat climate change, it adds.
Certainly all of us can appreciate the growing urgency of the things that threaten life as we know it.
There is climate change, of course, and the debates are not going to end anytime soon. Meanwhile, despite the science, decisive action has been lacking. The usual chasm has been between developed and developing countries, but lately the younger generation has taken the older ones to task for not doing anything aside from talking about the problem.
As we go into 2020, the urgency is real and keeps getting close to home. We observed the fires that consumed a good part of Australia and threatened numerous wild species. And then, last week, Taal Volcano’s eruption took us by surprise. For us observers on relatively safer ground, the main concern is ashfall posing risks to our health and property. For those living within the 14-kilometer danger zone, and especially those closest to it, it’s a complete disruption of everyday lives. They have to stop their routines and leave behind their homes.
As if all these were not enough, we are now confronted with the deadly coronavirus. As of Thursday morning, the Chinese city of Wuhan has been placed on lockdown. More than 500 people there have been diagnosed so far, and 17 have died. People have been described as being “in panic mode.” We here in the Philippines are on edge, too, knowing the volume of Chinese tourists and other workers freely going in and out of our borders. We hope authorities are able to contain the virus soon; worst-case scenarios are just so easy to imagine.
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Words of the year, like those above, are supposed to reflect and convey a people’s collective preoccupation.
Individually, it is also possible to pick out that one word or phrase, perhaps not retroactively but going into the future, that will govern how we live our lives this year and thereafter.
There are as many choices as there are nouns, and there is no stopping a person from having a single word, or even runners up, to the words they would choose to define their 2020.
I would imagine that good words to live by in 2020 would be "kindness," "gratefulness," "empathy," "balance," "clarity." “Less” is also a sound mantra, amid all the excesses we see around us.
My personal choice is "boundaries." Boundaries are lines that separate what we can work with or what we put up with, and what is no longer negotiable. Setting boundaries is a good way to practice patience, perseverance and tolerance, while asserting what is good for us.
What’s your word of the year?