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Oxford Dictionary's Word of 2018 says a lot about how we feel as a planet

OED's word of the year is "toxic," beating out other dark terms like "gaslighting," "techlash," and 'incel." Here’s why it may be a good sign for the future.
Storm clouds raining on a person
What describes the mood of 2018? The word toxic saw an increase of 45 percent on the OED site this year. fStop Images - Jutta Kuss / Getty Images

As a vocabulary fanatic, this is an exciting time of year for me, because Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has released its top word of the year, along with a shortlist of finalists.

These are words that, as Jeffrey Sherwood, senior assistant editor, U.S. Dictionaries, Oxford University Press USA explains, aren’t necessarily new, but have picked up steam over the course of the year and are trending in both search activity on the Oxford site, as well as on social media and the internet at large.

“Oxford’s process of adding new words is based on a huge database that scrolls the internet and pulls what people are saying,” says Sherwood. “We evaluate computationally how frequently words are being used and what they are being used with to see what is shifting and emerging."

The word of 2018 is “toxic”, which Sherwood says had a search increase of 45 percent on the site this year. Arguably, this is a far more fascinating word than 2017’s winner “youthquake,” chiefly because “toxic” reflects how single words can expand and change in meaning over time.

'Toxic' has evolved from being solely literal to figurative, too

“Toxic” originated in the mid 1600s as the Latin “toxicus,” a derivative of “toxicum,” which comes from the Greek “toxikón,” meaning, “bow poison.”

“The word went form being something very literal until the 20th century. Then around [the emergence of] ‘toxic waste,’ our consciousness was raised at the importance of the word as it related to our environment,” explains Sherwood.

According to Oxford’s research, we’re using “toxic” to describe everything from chemicals and gas to masculinity and relationships.

This shift allowed us to go even further with "toxic" by using it figuratively and metaphorically.

“In the ‘80s, we started to see a number of books on self-help and workplace dynamics where ‘toxic’ began to behave like a buzzword,” says Sherwood. “Soon after we saw ‘toxic relationships’ emerge, but by then it was already in the water [as a word with a figurative meaning] and now it’s reached a level of total saturation.”

According to Oxford’s research, we’re using “toxic” to describe everything from chemicals and gas to masculinity and relationships. We’ve embraced the word as a kind of blanket descriptor for anything deeply but often invisibly harmful.

We’re drawn to ‘toxic’ because it’s feels more unnatural than ‘poison’

But why “toxic” and not “poisonous”, I asked John Black, PhD, chair, Department of English and co-director of Medieval Studies at Moravian College. He thinks it has to do largely with the association we’ve developed of toxins as being unnatural, invasive and often undetectable until some damage is done.

These are connotations that have fed its role in pop psychology.

“The word ‘toxic’, unlike ‘poisonous’ describes something almost monstrous and alien,” says Black. “Poison has more of an association with nature — a rattlesnake or poison ivy, but toxic cannot be distinguished so easily, and it has an insidious edge of mystery. It’s scarier that ‘poisonous’ in that it’s more inorganic. We don’t generally say, ‘poisonous pharmaceuticals,’ for instance. We use it more to describe artificiality, something that doesn’t belong in nature.”

A ‘toxic’ year where ‘gaslight’ and ‘incel’ also made the list

OED's shortlist of finalists for top words of the year include words that have meanings ranging from semi-dark, like “orbiting”, to downright distressing, like “gaslighting” and “incel.” When I first saw the list I thought, “Wow, what a grim year, if these were the trendiest words.”

2018 has been a rough year, with the [wildfires], the Proud Boys trying to start fights in major cities, the [rise of mass shootings] — and that’s just in the US.

Carrie Gillon, a former linguistics and English professor and now the co-host of the Vocal Fries, a podcast about linguistic discrimination, suggests that this first impression is fairly spot on.

“2018 has been a rough year, with the [wildfires], the Proud Boys trying to start fights in major cities, the [rise of mass shootings] — and that’s just in the US,” says Gillon. “In Britain, there have been similar events, including the nerve agent attack in Salisbury. The IPCC report on global warming also highlighted the risks of air pollution. Feels like things are just getting harder and harder.”

But these trends may offer a glimmer of hope

Despite the devastating tragedies and the politically fraught environment causing the spike in our usage of these words, there’s good reason to be hopeful, or even, as Essence Cohen Fields, a licensed professional counselor, says “very excited.”

She sees the surge of interest in these words not as a dismal wrap-up to a bleak year, but as a sign that we’re starting to acknowledge persistent problems in a more straightforward way — possibly as the first step in creating a dialogue aimed at solving them.

“This is very exciting because the next step could be the creation of legislation that prohibits toxic behavior." She points to stricter laws around workplace or other types of harassment and "even redefining abuse so that ongoing adverse events at the hands of someone in a position of dominance are no longer normalized.”

Additionally, our growing usage of these words, which Cohen Fields says she often hears in sessions with her clients, shows a willingness to “engage and attempt to accept that others have been affected by behavior that may have once been considered acceptable."

2018 hasn’t been the merriest year for us as a society, as these words reveal, but they show that at least we’re not ignoring or hiding from the challenges. We’ve brought them into the light of conversation.

"Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder,” wrote Rumi, the 13th-century poet and mystic.

The rain is falling as we raise our words. Perhaps on next year’s Oxford list, we’ll see some flowers.


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