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21st November 2018

The year of toxicity: Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year

Esmee Samsworth takes a look at the Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Year: Toxic, and what the choice says about 2018.
The year of toxicity: Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year
Photo: Averyaudio @ Wikimedia Commons

Since 2004, Oxford Dictionaries have been attempting to distil public sentiment on national and international affairs into one word.

On the surface, these words aren’t always serious or even thought-provoking. In 2009, the UK Word of the Year was ‘simples’, as in Aleksandr Orlov’s catchphrase from the Compare the Market adverts. The 2009 US Word of the Year was ‘unfriend’, highlighting Facebook’s growing global influence and popularity. In 2015, the word of the year wasn’t even a word, but the laughing emoji, suggesting that we had moved into a post-word era. The following year, Oxford announced that the Word of the Year was ‘post-truth’ which signalled the beginnings of an altogether different era.

Yet behind the apparent frivolity of Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year, there are patterns to be examined. Truths that would otherwise be overlooked are made clear. ‘Simples’ marked a shift in advertising and marketing becoming more invasive and all-encompassing. ‘Unfriend’ hinted at the dramatic rise of social media in all aspects of our lives. 2016’s ‘post-truth’ forced us to question deep-seated beliefs about our freedoms and our roles in maintaining them.

The Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year for 2018 is ‘toxic’. Toxic as in toxic masculinity, as in toxic waste, toxic algae, toxic environment. It seems that 2018 is the year of poison.

It’s easy to see why the public has been so preoccupied with toxicity this year. The news has been dominated by stories of a world that is not just shifting but hurling itself further and further to the far-right; of the tampering and hacking of American and British democracy; from hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters becoming more dangerous and more frequent, to the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, which flew in the face of women demanding that their stories of sexism and sexual abuse be heard and their voices not be silenced.

It’s clear that the toxicity we’re facing has seeped into many different aspects of our lives. Casper Grathwohl, President of Oxford Dictionaries, said in a statement, “Reviewing this year in language we repeatedly encountered the word ‘toxic’ being used to describe an increasing set of conditions that we’re all facing… ‘toxic’ seems to reflect a growing sense of how extreme, and at times radioactive, we feel aspects of modern life have become.”

And yet, I don’t believe that the Oxford Dictionaries’ decision to pick ‘toxic’ should be cause for any more despair. If anything, it should be seen a call to action and a positive one at that. Because the thing is, it is only once we identify something as toxic that we can work to find a cure.

The sexism and misogyny that put Brett Kavanaugh in the Supreme Court were swiftly rebuked by millions of Americans who voted a record number of women into office at all levels in the November midterms. Grassroots activists fighting for environmental protections have gained in numbers and in prominence making it impossible to ignore the damage that big business has done. People are angry and they are actively fighting for a cure to the poison in our lives.

2018 may be the year of ‘toxic’, but that does not mean that 2019 will be the year of ‘hopelessness’.

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