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OnWords: Word Of The Year


Late in December each year, authorities on language such as those who curate the Oxford English Dictionary release their word of the year.

I use the word “curate” purposefully to describe what those who assemble dictionaries do, as the best description of a dictionary I ever heard was that it is a “museum for words.”

The implication here is that a dictionary provides a snapshot of the state of the art at any given time, and just never, or seldom, throws anything away.

So while words of the year can seem very timely—and need to be—curmudgeons complain that they’ll never last. Timelessness, they contend, is what the business of language should be all about.

This year’s Oxford pick, by the way, is “youthquake,” a word coined in the 1960s to describe the social impact of a movement of youth.

“Youthquake” seems strangely out of place for those of us on this side of the Atlantic, as we’re still reeling from the effects of an election dominated by a demographic who haven’t been youth since the time that word was originally coined.

The very timeliness of the word of the year, then, is really about how we’re trying to describe a culture; it’s a matter of history, and therefore very appropriate to note by those word museums we rely upon to describe, and thereby define, the artistry we use to describe, and thereby define, the worlds we live in.