There’s a Hebrew phrase “Ha’olam shayach letzeirim” – the world belongs to the young. And now there’s a word for it in English. Not just any old word. A “Word of the Year.” Oxford Dictionaries chose “Youthquake” as the top word of 2017.
Ironically, the word itself is not new. It was coined in 1965 when Diana Vreeland, editor-in-chief of Vogue, used it to describe the youth-led fashion and music movement of the Swinging Sixties.
I was too young to catch it the first time around and am too old to be enthusiastic about it now.
According to Oxford’s own undoubted definition: “The noun, youthquake, is defined as ‘a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.’”
Their editors found a fivefold increase in usage of youthquake in 2017 compared to 2016, “the word having first struck in a big way in June with the UK’s general election at its epicenter” and its use being further bolstered by the elections in New Zealand.
It used to be said that a sign of getting old was when the police and soldiers look young. Lately, it’s been the world’s youthful leaders who have made me feel particularly middle-aged.
Among the young faces that haven’t yet acquired the gray hair and wrinkles that used to be associated with the job, New Zealand in September elected Jacinda Ardern, 37, to head the government; French President Emmanuel Macron turned 40 last week (although his wife is 24 years older); Ireland’s equivalent of prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is 38; and Austria’s baby-faced chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, is only 31 (although he was foreign minister from the age of 27).
In short, if Ehud Barak is planning a political comeback against Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel’s next elections, they might both find themselves way behind the times.
Several lists are circulating on the Internet naming 12 world leaders under 40. The names include Kim Jong Un (North Korea); Enrico Carattoni and Matteo Fiorini (jointly, San Marino); Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (Qatar); Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (Bhutan); Juri Ratas (Estonia); Volodymyr Groysman (Ukraine); and Saleh Ali al-Sammad, who heads Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi movement. Earlier this month, the Houthis killed long-serving former Yemenite president Ali Abdullah Saleh, apparently to protest his pro-Saudi stance.
Also noteworthy is 32-year-old Muhammad bin Salman, who was elevated to the powerful position of crown prince in Saudi Arabia in June and has since been making waves with an anti-extremist and anti-corruption clampdown, a decision to allow women to drive, and allowing the opening of cinemas and developing the entertainment industry as a way of providing jobs for young people in the post-oil-dependent economy.
The times, like the language, are definitely changing. Oxford’s shortlist included “Antifa,” “broflake,” “kompromat,” “newsjacking” and “white fragility,” hence the “youthquake” choice caused me to emit a sigh of relief along with the regular “I’m getting too old for this”-type sigh. In the year of #MeToo, it could have been worse.
Casper Grathwohl, who has the enviable title of “President of Dictionaries” at Oxford University Press, wrote a blog to explain the process of choosing the Word of the Year “that reminds us about where we’ve just been, but also one that captures the zeitgeist, that defining spirit or mood of the moment.”
It is, he noted, “a delicate decision. Sometimes our choice is serious, other times playful. Some years inspire a collective aha! moment of recognition, like 2013’s selfie; others a more somber reflection, as we saw with 2016’s post-truth. And of course there are years when the choice sparks a rather heated debate – selecting an emoji in 2015 [the “Face with Tears of Joy”] sent many enraged word mavens to our door, dog-eared dictionary in one hand and a pitchfork in the other....
“No, it’s not an obvious choice,” Grathwohl admitted. “Many of you may even be scratching your heads. It’s true that it has yet to land firmly on American soil, but strong evidence in the UK, where it rose to prominence as a descriptor of the impact of the country’s young people on its general election, calls it out as a word on the move.... Youthquake is traveling fast.” (I’ll let that “descriptor” go, in the spirit of the season.)
I don’t want to launch a war of Words of the Year, but Oxford Dictionaries might not have the last you-know-what. Collins Dictionary named the term “fake news” as “Collins’ Word of the Year 2017.” This humble Collins (no relation to the publishing giant) concurred and I was betting on the phrase coming out top. (Last year, Brexit headed the Collins chart.)
According to the company, usage of the term “fake news” has risen by 365% since 2016, thanks to US President Donald Trump – the antithesis of the youthquake phenomenon.
Unlike “youthquake,” unless you slept away the entire year you’ll already be familiar with the term “fake news,” defined as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.”
Other words on the Collins shortlist were “gender fluid,” “fidget spinner” and “cuffing season.”
This word-of-the-year thing is a real learning experience: I now know and share that “cuffing season” is “the period of autumn and winter, when single people are considered likely to seek settled relationships rather than engage in casual affairs.” I’m of the age that values year-round friendships rather than the seasonal. I’d like the coming year to bring more disposable income than disposable friends.
For those readers still lost for words, Grathwohl explained: “We chose youthquake based on its evidence and linguistic interest. But most importantly for me, at a time when our language is reflecting a deepening unrest and exhausted nerves, it is a rare political word that sounds a hopeful note. Hope that the damage we’ve done to our institutions will enable the next generation to rebuild better ones. Hope that our polarized times are creating a more open-minded electorate that will exercise its voice in the times ahead.”
Sadly, rather than hope, this fills me with the fear that increasingly more people with less experience will form and share opinions via an “echo chamber” – another phrase shortlisted by Collins for 2017. It is defined as “an environment, especially on a social media site, in which any statement of opinion is likely to be greeted with approval because it will only be read or heard by people who hold similar views.”
If you wonder where this is going, consider 21-year-old New Zealand singer Lorde canceling her show in Tel Aviv after receiving negative tweets from the boycott Israel brigade. She was spoon-fed fake news and she swallowed it. As many have noted, she apparently doesn’t have a problem appearing in Russia, because the Palestinian propaganda machine didn’t attack her for it.
“Given that usage of the term hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our time,” Grathwohl wrote in the press release accompanying last year’s choice. A look at some of the other terms that were considered by Oxford last year is revealing. Among them is: “Adulting: The practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks.”
This should serve as a reminder that youth is a passing phase and youthquake is a passing phrase. You have my word for it. The voice of experience.