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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

The power of words to define a time

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary is displayed in a bookstore

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary is displayed in a bookstore Nov. 10, 2003 in Niles, Illinois. Credit: Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Selecting a word of the year is a thankless job. It's best to acknowledge right away that one's choice is exactly that, a choice among alternatives. Especially in a year like 2019, which was so hurly-burly, packed with events and marked by provocations as to defy such summary description.

Oxford Dictionaries picked "climate emergency." At least it has the virtue of being accurate — we certainly are in one. It also is true that attitudes about the topic have morphed. What once was simply climate change is now a climate crisis; the folks at Oxford report that usage of "climate emergency" is 100 times more common than last year. In fact, every entry on Oxford's word-of-the-year shortlist is at least somewhat climate-related (climate action, eco-anxiety, extinction, etc.).

Dictionary.com cast a bigger net with "existential," to which it could have added its modern partner — "threat." In 2019, we saw existential threats all around us. For Sen. Bernie Sanders and 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, it was climate change. Others described gun violence (Christchurch, New Zealand; Virginia Beach, Virginia.; El Paso, Texas; Dayton, Ohio) as an existential crisis. Former Vice President Joe Biden called President Donald Trump an existential threat to our nation, while others pointed to the crosshairs on our tattered democracy. Brexit, the devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the protests in Hong Kong, even Forky in "Toy Story 4," all were seen in existential terms.

You know what else faces existential threat? Our collective attention span. Axios generated a graph of Google search trends that showed narrowing peaks of attention, with sudden spikes and dramatic fall-offs as our focus increasingly lurches from one news event to another.

Existential is now so thoroughly seen as a stark descriptor of life-or-death struggle that it has obliterated the meaning rooted in Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre and their philosophical peers, whose theories of existentialism emphasized individual humans as free actors with free will whose decisions determine their development.

As much turf as "existential" covered in 2019, Merriam-Webster came up with an even more inspired choice: They.

Merriam-Webster cited its increasing popularity as a singular personal pronoun for someone with nonbinary gender identity — someone who identifies as neither "he" nor "she." The emergence of "they" in this way is an important and welcome nod to inclusion.

But words often have multiple lives. Such is the case with Merriam-Webster's citation. Because "they" also has acquired tremendous power in other circles in its juxtaposition with the word "we."

We, not they. Us vs. them. Those who belong against those who do not.

They, in other words, also has the power to divide.

We see it in immigration bans and hostility to migrants and refugees around the world. We see it in the rhetoric of all kinds of strongmen in all corners of the globe. We see it in many mass shootings here and abroad, and in the perpetrators' ugly online manifestos. We see it in increasingly repressive government policies, whether it's Myanmar with the ethnic cleansing of its Rohingya minority, China with its concentration camps for Uighurs, India with its citizenship ban on Muslims, or our own nation's travel ban and immigration and refugee policies. You are not one of us, you are they.

We also see it in our rhetoric, among some of our political leaders in particular. Increasingly, either you are on our side or you're not, you're one of us or one of them.

In that sense, it is toxic. Some might say that, unabated, it also is existential.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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