Last month, I read a beautiful story that would forever make the lime squeezed into my Corona taste sweeter. Antonino Fernandez, CEO of the brewer behind that beer, had died aged 99, leaving €200m (£172m) to the Spanish village where he grew up in poverty as one of 13 siblings, making all 80 residents millionaires overnight.
Except, they didn’t. This story, reported by the Daily Telegraph, Mirror, Independent, Sun, Daily Mail, Sydney Morning Herald and others, is a prime example of the Oxford Dictionaries word of 2016: post-truth.
Strictly speaking, it’s defined as when objective facts are less influential than emotional appeals. But, the definition feels broader. Post-truth isn’t just about Trump, Brexit and the lies told on the ever-aggressive political campaign trail. At its worst it turned into outright “fake news”, shared widely on social media because of its appeal to users’ prejudice. Criticism that these stories influenced the outcome of the US election prompted Facebook to introduce measures to try to fact-check and flag up such canards.
Now, not everyone is a ‘word of the year’ fan. Encapsulating a year into one word is audaciously reductive and, let’s face it, usually a dictionary marketing exercise. Nevertheless the respective words of the year by major dictionaries do give a concise summary of the dogshitshow of 2016:
- Oxford Dictionaries: post-truth
- Dictionary.com: xenophobia
- Cambridge: paranoid
- Collins: Brexit
Dismally dispiriting diction, I’m sure you’ll agree, in juxtaposition to the jaunty words of 2015 (crying with laughter emoji; binge-watch; sharing economy). How did we move from semantic utopia to doomsday in 12 short months?
When reduced to four stark words, 2016 sounds like a bleak Margaret Atwood novel. The dictionaries’ lexical precis suggests it is the year society ate itself and regurgitated Beelzebub’s new year’s resolutions. But at least the portmanteau linguistic device went mainstream with Brexit. That was the single highlight of 2016. A portmanteau. Even that was used as a euphemism for something ghastly.
Some other buzzwords that could surmise the year: confirmation bias; echo chamber; filter bubble. They’re Orwellian words of some strange, immediate dystopia. Those chambers and bubbles contain nothing but dangerous, sinister nodding heads. All terms reflect the digital enclave within which we cocoon ourselves, saying lalalala with hands over our ears whenever our world-view is challenged with something not reverberating insidiously in affirmation or popping that safe bubble. It is a false economy which sees us willingly allow our prejudices to be massaged, bringing us to the happy ending we can’t actually get in real life. Grim.
Echoing, filtering and post-truthing are ominous words that may not just represent the year, but perhaps the decade ahead.
Perhaps the perfect concept to understand where we are now is delicious term ‘Gutenberg parenthesis’, coined by academic Thomas Pettitt. It describes the 500-year anomaly between the 15th and 20th centuries when Gutenberg’s printed press dictated and broadcasted information by carefully selected experts. It was consumed prescriptively because it was such a fixed, authoritative format.
The digital era returns us to the time before the first bracket of those parentheses – when communication flowed unfiltered and unedited in the town square, in the form of gossip, rumour and spirited, robust conversation. This promotes a healthy scepticism about the subjective nature of the word ‘truth’ and its own true, complex meaning.
In addition to new buzzwords, existing words have evolved in meaning this year. Elite, expert and emotion are three that have shifted. ‘Elitist’ used to mean a toff born into wealth on the well trodden path from Eton to PPE at Oxbridge and then a career of professional mansplaining of some form or another. Today, an elite is simply a politician, or a professional or an expert. They could come from any class, be born into any background or even define as a socialist. In the us and them binary, they’re the them.
Similarly, experts used to be highly-regarded professionals at the top of their niche field. Now, the geek-bullying of the playground has festered into adulthood and “expert” is almost a pejorative, sneered at by the likes of Michael Gove and Donald Trump.
“Emotion” used to count for something that we invested in, germinated and paid attention to. Now it’s dismissed up against its binary opposite: objective fact.
Carol Cadwalladr recently wrote about a particularly zeitgeisty word that has changed its meaning radically: “Once, children might get told off for being loud or unruly or, as we called it then, “disruptive”… In 2016, it’s cool to be disruptive. It’s what every startup in Silicon Valley is straining to do.”
Disruption has happened on a grand scale: to politics, to democracy and to language itself. Disruption to the point of dystopia. Or, perhaps, to the point of melodrama. Depends on what you believe is true.
Relax over those holidays, folks.
Gary Nunn writes regularly for Mind your language @garynunn1
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