There should be a word for it – the propensity of pundits this time every year to try to pithily sum up the previous 12 months. I’m not immune to it either, although the word “immune” has taken on a more literal connotation over the past couple of years.
As someone who works and plays with words, I’m naturally drawn to the lists drawn up by dictionaries, newspapers and other outlets determining the “Word of the Year.” I’m not lost for words, but I might be lost in time. I have barely absorbed the fact that we’re in the 2020s, and, before you could say Jack Robinson, the first two years have already passed.
At the end of 2019, I included “FOMO” as one of the terms that defined the decade. Fear of Missing Out – Don’t make me laugh! So far, foreign travel, vacations, entertainment and even gathering for family events have all fallen prey to COVID-19, a word none of us knew just two innocent years ago. That was a different era: BC, Before Corona.
So here we are: Once more, many of the year’s top word awards reflect the impact of the pandemic on our lives. Merriam-Webster, for example, selected “Vaccine,” noting, “The word vaccine was about much more than medicine in 2021. For many, the word symbolized a possible return to the lives we led before the pandemic. But it was also at the center of debates about personal choice, political affiliation, professional regulations, school safety, healthcare inequality, and so much more.
“Few words can express so much about one moment in time.”
The Oxford English Dictionary was even more succinct, opting for “Vax,” which “injected itself into the bloodstream of the English language.” Citing its versatility, the OED list of vax-related words includes: anti-vaxxer and double-vaxxed. (In Israel’s fortunate case, we’re well into triple-vaxxed terminology.)
I particularly liked the OED definition of the noun “vaxxie”: “A photograph of oneself taken during or immediately before or after a vaccination, especially one against COVID-19, and typically shared on social media; a vaccination selfie.” It’s what one does when taking selfies in more exotic settings is out of bounds for many. It gives FOMO a completely different twist. We’ve come a long way in the wrong direction since the OED declared “selfie” its word of the year in 2013.
Last year, the OED was lost for words, literally. Instead of declaring one clear winner, Oxford University Press produced a “Words of an Unprecedented Year Report,” which included: COVID-19, WFH (work from home), lockdown, circuit-breaker, support bubbles, key workers, furlough, Black Lives Matter, and moonshot.
Whereas “pandemic” and “lockdown” both headed lists last year (Merriam-Webster and Collins, respectively), there is clearly an attempt to move on. Collins, the dictionary people and no relation, came up with the interesting choice of “NFT.” The abbreviation of “non-fungible token” beat “crypto” (short for cryptocurrency) and “cheugy” to the top spot on their list. (Great. Now I not only feel that two years are missing from my life but I feel so old that I don’t understand what people are talking about.) Apparently “cheugy,” which to me sounds like the description of a chewy chocolate bar or a dog’s toy, is used “to say that something is out of date or uncool” – which clearly I am in this case.
Collins lexicographers also included “Neopronoun,” the use of gender-neutral pronouns like “xe,” “ze” and “ve” instead of “he/she” and “they.” This gets utterly lost in translation when it comes to gender-specific languages, including Hebrew. I can identify more with “climate anxiety,” reflecting a concern about the damage humans are doing to the planet, which is also on the Collins list. The extreme cases of depression and fears rooted in climate anxiety are now recognized as a mental health problem, especially among youth.
The most surprising word of the year came from Dictionary.com. The word is “allyship” defined as: “the status or role of a person who advocates and actively works for the inclusion of a marginalized or politicized group in all areas of society, not as a member of that group but in solidarity with its struggle and point of view and under its leadership.”
Explaining the choice, the Dictionary.com website says: “The year 2021 has been defined by the many ongoing impacts of the pandemic and the polarization of 2020 – and the various ways we continue to grapple with them. The vastness of such a year could never be fully summarized with a single word. But there is one word that’s intertwined with so many of the things we’ve experienced in 2021: allyship, our 2021 Word of the Year.... Allyship acts as a powerful prism through which to view the defining events and experiences of the past year – and, crucially, how the public processed them.”
I’m still processing what that means.
ALTHOUGH WE’RE well into the Hebrew year 5782, which started in the fall, the Hebrew Language Academy obviously has its own version of FOMO. It also offered the general public a chance to propose the word of the year for 2021 and then whittled the suggestions down into a shortlist.
My offering of “gal” did not make it. I chose the word which means “wave” because this year has been marked, if not scarred, by terms like “fourth wave” and “fifth wave,” each accompanied by a letter from the Greek alphabet.
Perhaps my suggestion was invalidated as I mentioned that my choice was also a nod in the direction of Israeli actress Gal Gadot, aka Wonder Woman. (Her “Red Notice” on Netflix got mixed reviews but I enjoyed it as good, clean, old-fashioned, heist-movie fun.)
The Hebrew Language Academy shortlist, particularly coming ahead of Hebrew Language Day on Thursday, December 24, gives an interesting insight into what’s on Israeli minds. Unexpectedly, leading by far as I write these lines is “tirlul,” which translates as “insanity.” It has 35% of the votes. How crazy is that? I assume it refers to the country’s political situation and the erratic decisions regarding corona policy.
Tirlul is currently followed by “hisun,” vaccination (or vax to OED aficionados), which has 15% of the vote. The same root letters also serve “hasinut” (immunity) and, particularly fitting in the current circumstances, “hosen nafshi,” (emotional) resilience. Other words on the list include “tashnit,” the word the academy has introduced for mutation and “dahaf” for booster.
“Aklim,” climate, has 10% of the vote so far. That’s double both “shigra” and “shinui,” routine and change respectively – an Israeli combination if ever there was one. At the bottom of the nine-word shortlist as it currently stands are “medalliat zahav” (gold medal), as befits an Olympic year, and pkakim, traffic jams, which rival corona in their impact on our daily lives.
There’s obviously a word for 2021, but it’s all Greek to me. Anyone voting for “omicron”? Here’s looking at 2022. Let’s hope it’s a year that leaves us speechless only in the most positive sense of the word. And that “positive” again becomes a positive thing.