Words for a Year of Fear

WOTYwordThis week Time magazine announced its Person of the Year, the person who made the most news in 2016. To nobody’s surprise, that was Donald Trump.

But what about the Word of the Year 2016? That’s a little harder.

Trump certainly inspired neologisms. Witness, for example, David Barnhart’s “Trumptionary” that I have excerpted in previous posts.

March 7:

“The Trumptionary”

March 17:

“The Trumptionary, Part 2″

October 31:

“Trumptionary 3: Barnhart’s Never-Finished Dictionary of Politics”

Barnhart’s Never-Finished Political Dictionary of the 21st Century, incorporating these entries, is now available in print.

And the discussion is indeed never finished. Have you survived the year until now? If so, you might want to join us in taking a look back at the barrage of words we’ve dodged to find the one that best fits our memories of 2016.

Some authorities have made their choice already. The Oxford dictionaries have decided on post-truth for their Word of the Year 2016, as my Lingua Franca colleague Lucy Ferriss explains. It’s a new term, new enough not just to require a definition but also to stir up disagreements about the definition.

Meanwhile, has gone for xenophobia. My preference would be phobiaphobia, fear of fear itself. It has been that kind of year.

Of course, the year isn’t over yet. There may be more surprises. So the American Dialect Society, first to establish the custom of choosing a Word of the Year (in 1990), always is last each year to make its choice (prudently waiting till the year is completely over). But with more than 11/12 of 2016 gone by, we can identify some likely candidates.

Here is where you come in. ADS is still accepting nominations for WOTY (our convenient abbreviation) at

On Thursday night, January 5, at the meeting of the American Dialect Society with the Linguistic Society of America, this time in Austin, Tex., the ADS New Words Committee will meet to determine nominees for Word of the Year in about 10 categories. The next night, at a meeting open to everyone, final choices will be made by show of hands, in voting that is serious but lighthearted.

The New Words chair, Benjamin Zimmer of the Wall Street Journal, has recently worked with his committee of logophiles and lexiphiles to refine the list of categories. Tentatively they will be:

Political Words of the Year


Slang WOTY

Most Useful WOTY

Most Likely to Succeed WOTY

Most Creative WOTY

Euphemism of the Year


Hashtag of the Year

Emoji of the Year

and possibly, additional ad hoc categories.

And then, having reviewed all these candidates, the assembly will be prepared for the ultimate decision, the vote on overall Word of the Year. What word or phrase, positive or negative or neutral, best reflects our language landscape of 2016?

I’ll suggest one here: microaggression. It’s not new, having been coined in 1970 to refer to casual, even unconscious, language that degrades ”any socially marginalized group,” as Wikipedia has it. But during the past year, focused as it has been on casual degradation of political opponents and on sexual assaults on college campuses, just to name a few, microaggression seems to me to be the word of the times.

Actually, there’s another quite different word that I prefer, but I’m keeping quiet about it for the January meetings. If any reader uncovers it here, however, I’ll admit to it. Hint: It’s big.

And here’s a special announcement about a holiday gift for any logophile: Until January 3, a one-year subscription to the online updated version of the Dictionary of American Regional English is just $47.50 instead of the usual $95.

Happy old year!


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