For wordsmiths, year’s end is a propitious time.
That’s when various purveyors of definitions and synonyms shine a light on our stock-in-trade with their choices for “word of the year.”
It’s a delight because it gets people thinking about our linguistic building blocks. Take Oxford Dictionaries’ befuddling 2017 offering: youthquake.
No one uses the word. It’s hardly ever in print, at least in the United States (though Oxford is a Brit outfit). Describing “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people,” it was coined by then-Vogue editor Diana Vreeland in 1965, when young people indeed were running amok and instigating all sorts of change.
But in 2017? I’ll give you womenquake, but not youthquake.
Merriam-Webster went with feminism, another 1960s buzzword. M-W said it was the “top lookup” of 2017, which could imply we’re slow learners. But there’s no disputing the relevance of the inspirations for all those lookups — like the women’s march in January and the #MeToo reckoning.
Even more laser-appropriate for these times was Dictionary.com’s selection: complicit.
It was a worthy choice if only for leading to questions about the bounds of complicity. By the definition — “choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others” — you’re responsible for actions both direct and indirect.
Interest in the word spiked after the brilliant “Saturday Night Live” parody in which Scarlett Johansson played Ivanka Trump pushing a perfume named Complicit, reflecting both the zeitgeist surrounding the first family and the cultural power of “SNL.” The next spike came when, asked about her and hubby Jared Kushner being complicit in her father’s actions, Ivanka herself responded disingenuously, “I don’t know what it means to be complicit.”
Which guaranteed that millions of others were going to figure out what it means.
Even more ominously apropos was the Yale Law School librarian’s annual top quote winner: “alternative facts.”
The word-of-the-year focus had special significance in 2017, when some words reportedly were censored by an administration headed by a president who has said, “I have the best words.” His supply apparently did not include “diversity,” “vulnerable” or “science-based,” which were on a list of words Centers for Disease Control officials were told to avoid in preparing budget requests that will go to Congress. Or “climate change,” which has been pretty much scrubbed from federal websites. The Justice Department issued a “language guidance” document with words and phrases to avoid, like “underserved youth.”
The best response to the censorious kerfuffle: covfefe!
What will 2018 bring? Who knows? But I hope empathy, engage, compromise, persist and enlightened make the cut.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.