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Word of the Year 2016 - Shortlist

Post-truth is the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016, but the shortlist has a wide range of words which have had an impact on 2016, for better or worse. Alongside glass cliff, woke, and alt-right, the following words also reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the past twelve months.

hygge, n.

[mass noun] a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture)

Speakers of Danish will have been long familiar with the word hygge – pronounced H(Y)OO-guh  (with hue as the first syllable) or HOOG-uh to rhyme with sugar – but it has come to prominence in the UK and, later, the US during 2016. Hygge has been seen as a pleasant antidote to the high-profile political debates and celebrity deaths of 2016, and many books have been written advising how to achieve hygge, while commentators try to pin down what exactly the word denotes. Often, specific examples of hygge are used to building up a picture. Visit Denmark, for example, mentions ‘the warm glow of candlelight’ and ‘sitting around the table for hours on end discussing the big and small things in life’, while the Guardian lists ‘coffee pots, cinnamon buns, candles; cashmere socks, hands wrapped around mugs’.

While the evidence for loanwords in English is often initially self-conscious, accompanied by explanations, there is growing evidence of contextual  use on social media, where hygge has been used  as a hashtag for photos of candlelit tables and embraced as the ultimate respite from the year’s more serious events.

Hygge is far from the first ‘untranslatable’ word to be borrowed into English. While hygge is all the rage this year, you’re probably also familiar, for example, with the German Schadenfreude (‘malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of others’) – in 2015, we explored six other emotions for which English doesn’t have a word.

Brexiteer, n.

British informal a person who is in favour of the United Kingdom withdrawing from the European Union

In 2015, when Brexit appeared on our Word of the Year shortlist, it was defined as ‘a term for the potential or hypothetical departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union’ (and, in 2013, it was only a blip on our radar). Since then, of course, the referendum has taken place and the British public narrowly voted in favour of Brexit; in turn, our definition lost the words ‘or hypothetical’.

It wasn’t just the word Brexit that saw a sharp rise in popularity, though; from regrexit to remoaner, there are plenty of other words which were either invented or popularized in 2016 as a result of the vote. We’ve chosen Brexiteer because it is the most widely used of the various Brexit coinages we’ve investigated, including items such as Bregret, Bremain, Brexodus, and even the very similar Brexiter. Brexiteer uses the suffix -eer to denote a person concerned with or engaged in an activity, along the same lines as auctioneer, charioteer, mountaineer, and so forth; it was rarely used before 2016 but shows no signs yet of retreating from the English lexicon.

You can explore more about the most looked-up words in Oxford Dictionaries in the days following the EU referendum.

Latinx, n. and adj.

Noun: a person of Latin American origin or descent (used as a gender-neutral or non-binary alternative to Latino or Latina)

Adjective: relating to people of Latin American origin or descent (used as a gender-neutral or non-binary alternative to Latino or Latina)

Latinx arose in response to a fascinating quandary: how can a language like Spanish, in which nouns and adjectives have grammatical gender, be used in a gender-neutral way? In contexts where gender is mixed or unspecified, the masculine form is typically used, but some people have objected to this convention, arguing that it excludes women, as well as people who identify as neither male nor female. Latinx replaces the gendered -a or -o ending with -x. Latinx was being used online in Spanish by 2009, and had made its way into English use by 2012. It is still uncommon in mainstream English publications, but is widely used on American university campuses.

The plural is either Latinx or Latinxs, and the first two syllables are pronounced the same as Latino or Latina, not as in the Latin language, while the –x is pronounced separately; i.e. Latinx is three syllables rather than two.

You can find out more in our post about Latinx and the gender-neutral pronoun Mx.

coulrophobia, n.

extreme or irrational fear of clowns

The inclusion of coulrophobia in our Word of the Year shortlist reflects an unsettling trend that has been seen in North America, the UK, and elsewhere over recent months: the so-called ‘creepy clown craze’ or ‘killer clown craze’. Since August, there have been numerous reports of people dressed as creepy clowns cropping up – with some very serious reports, including violent attacks, and people dressed as clowns trying to lure children into woods. More frequently, people in clown costumes have been spotted simply standing, silently. The craze has not been explained, though many commentators have highlighted similarities to the murderous clown Pennywise in Stephen King’s 1986 novel It.

The word coulrophobia saw a brief by marked increase in use in the autumn of 2016, being mentioned by journalists writing about the phenomenon. The –phobia suffix is well-known for denoting a fear, but the first half of the word comes from the Greek kōlobatheron meaning ‘stilt’ (from kolon, ‘limb’), apparently with allusion to stilt-walking as a form of popular entertainment. Like Pennywise, the word dates to the 1980s. You can discover more unusual phobias on OxfordWords.

adulting, n.

[mass noun] informal the practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks

Adulting tends to be used tongue-in-cheek, as a faux badge of honour for having completed a dull task that needed doing. It can be either a noun (as a gerund) or a modifier – for instance, ‘I finished all my adulting requirements for the week’. Examples might include filling in tax returns or doing a grocery shop – but adulting is also often used ironically on social media, sometimes as a hashtag, for an action which the user actually considers immature or irresponsible:

The word adulting was used from time to time during the 20th century in various meanings, but the modern meaning — associated especially with millennials, known for their ambivalent relationship with the trappings of adulthood — seems to have begun to appear on social media in 2008.

chatbot, n.

a computer program designed to simulate conversation with human users, especially over the Internet

A chatbot (also known as a chatterbot) might have seemed like a far-off science fiction concept once, but the use of chatbot has skyrocketed in 2016, with some tech commentators dubbing this ‘the year of the chatbot’. The word has been used to refer to programs designed to simulate conversation with humans since the 1990s, however the Oxford Dictionaries corpus shows a surge in evidence beginning in March 2016, when Microsoft launched and then quickly withdrew its chatbot ‘Tay’ on Twitter after it began to produce offensive tweets. Usage of the word continued to rise in the following months, as high-profile announcements were made about new chatbot applications and platforms.

As for the word itself, it combines chat and bot, the latter being a shortening of robot which has been in use since the 1960s (the word robot, in turn, comes from the Czech robota, ‘forced labour’, and was coined in Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R.). The full chatterbot also puns on chatterbox (‘a person who likes to chatter’).

glass cliff, n.

used with reference to a situation in which a woman or member of a minority group ascends to a leadership position in challenging circumstances where the risk of failure is high.

Read more about the history 'glass cliff' from the term's creators, S. Alexander Haslam and Michelle Ryan, on OxfordWords.

alt-right, n.

(in the US) an ideological grouping associated with extreme conservative or reactionary viewpoints, characterized by a rejection of mainstream politics and by the use of online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content.

Read more about 'alt-right' in the spotlight on OxfordWords.

woke, adj.

US informal alert to injustice in society, especially racism.

Read more about woke's rise and evolution on OxfordWords.

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