Digital Culture

OED ‘Word of the Year’ and its Divisive Additions

Hannah Pepper

“Plant-based”, “extinction”, and “flight shame” were all shortlisted to be crowned Oxford Dictionaries 2019 word of the year, but amongst this all-environmental semantic shortlist, “climate emergency” came out on top. Lexicographers define it as “a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it” and have noted that usage of the term has increased by a hundredfold since the previous year.

It marks a new extension to the word “emergency”, escalated by the media to convey a better sense of urgency. Indeed, back in May of last year, The Guardian announced its favouring of “climate emergency” over “climate change” to better reflect the scientific consensus that this was “a catastrophe for humanity”.

An environmental narrative has been baked into our contemporary vernacular and it shows no sign of subsiding. It follows on from Collins Dictionary’s 2018 word of the year, “single-use” (in reference to plastic), emphasising our collective preoccupation with the environment has triggered a growing politicised vocabulary. 

But our language is mutating not only politically but also generationally, with millennial-coined words such as “whatevs”, “chillax” and even “nomophobia” (the fear of not having your phone – perhaps the most millennial of maladies!) finding their place within the Oxford English Dictionary last year. And whilst the former two seem a little late to the party, these additions highlight the patchwork nature of our language.

Of the 605 words added to the OED in 2019, 203 of these appeared for the first time and the rest being sub-entries. Many of which are borrowed, cut up and added, all stitched in to our dialect with newer, zeitgeisty meanings. It shows how we pick up and drop these cultural trends in words with the loyalty of an infant.

As always, with the announcement of new additions to the dictionary, linguistic snobbery rears its ugly head, preaching the desecration of our sacred language. Many may remember Jacob Rees-Mogg’s controversial anachronistic language rules enforced in parliament earlier last year. Yet, as we have seen with these divisive new additions, language is now evolutionary rather than prescriptive. Colloquialisms and coinages are nothing new; even the Victorians deployed some low-brow vernacular, not to mention that some of the greatest writers of our time are those who have actively flouted the archaic rules of the English language.

The willingness that the authorities of the English language show by continually trying to integrate modernity into the lexicon acknowledges that language offers not only a semantic reflection of the way we live, but also of how times are constantly changing, and to overlook this would be careless. Thoughtless. Slapdash. Or should I say… lackadaisical.