Society has fallen. The nuclear alarm sounds. Fires rage across the face of the Earth as devastation is wreaked by earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis. A fleet of aliens has landed, from a distant and, apparently, far more evolved corner of the solar system. They understand not only our languages, but our thoughts. They roam our cities, huge tentacled beasts with endless teeth and eyes. All seeing, all knowing.
But they’re only the penultimate stage of a long coming decline. Society had already evolved itself out of fertility. Thanks to pollution, or an act of God. Who can say? The end, it seems, is in sight. And then, worst of it all: news reaches me, in my underground concrete bunker, that the Oxford English Dictionary has decided, after a public vote, that its word of the year will be “goblin mode”. Finally, the four horsemen thunder ferociously across the sky.
Those of us in the bunker, covered in dirt and clad in rags, abandon our months-long argument over how best to ration the remaining tins of expired peaches and hotdogs and charge gleefully to the surface. The last of our great institutions has fallen! Language itself, even, has fallen! In the end, this release couldn’t come soon enough.
I’m being dramatic, of course. Still, the degradation of certain illustrious institutions via daft appeals to modernity and relevance, with winking nods towards internet culture, puts the fear of God into me, I have to say. Especially when it’s a version of internet culture that even I – a 29-year-old woman who spends more time on the internet than I probably should – barely recognise.
I have never once in my life heard someone say the phrase “goblin mode”, or use it in a message. Not this year, not ever. Apparently, it originated in 2009. I was dimly aware it existed, I vaguely knew what it meant. (For the uninitiated, the dictionary definition is: “a type of behaviour which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations”.) But if someone used it casually I’m not sure how I’d respond. Perhaps: why on earth are you talking like that?
A non-scientific survey of friends of about my age, and even including testimony gathered from the great generational chasm that separates me and the 25-year-olds in my life, suggests that I’m not alone in this. It’s a phrase people vaguely know about, but which nobody seems to actually use. So who is this for? Technically, the section of the public who voted I suppose. But that was only about 340,000 people. That’s right, a tiny sample size!
Granted, I didn’t vote, but the other options weren’t much better. A choice between “goblin mode”, “#IStandWith” and “metaverse”? No thanks. I’d rather someone who works at the dictionary, and also has a vague clue of what they’re talking about, picks from a selection of words people actually use instead. Preferably someone old enough to have never had a social media account at all.
“Given the year we’ve just experienced, ‘goblin mode’ resonates with all of us who are feeling a little overwhelmed at this point,” said Oxford Languages president Casper Grathwohl, in a statement which has the hostage note-like quality which is a depressingly common feature of modern life. There is the sense that he’s queasily guessing at how he’s supposed to feel, which is apparently the same thing as how we all feel, instead of saying anything even vaguely sincere.
And does it resonate? Personally, I don’t feel “seen” by it at all. Of course I don’t, we don’t all operate as a hive, absorbing and fuelling each other’s emotional states: one person’s year of disaster is another’s best. That “goblin mode” attained a 93% share of the vote seems to say more that it was the best of a bad bunch than anything about its wider resonance.
I get it, stunts like this tend to be engineered as a PR drive for announcements that are hard to get people interested in. But it does feel needlessly cheap and silly, like the OED has donned a back-to-front baseball hat and skateboarded across the news. In previous years, the OED staff chose the word of the year themselves, rather than put it to a public vote. It’s hard not to think they abdicated their responsibility this year and went trawling for their own “Boaty McBoatface”-style viral phenomenon. It’s not the only dictionary who seems to be at this game. This year, Merriam-Webster, the OED’s US counterpart, plumped for “gaslighting”. Next year, can we have a return to buttoned-up formality and dignity please?