Shashi Tharoor’s World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language
It’s the time of the year when various dictionaries announce their Words of the Year, usually on the basis of those words that have been looked up or cited most frequently on their sites. 2022 has been unusually interesting.
First off the blocks was the UK’s Collins, with “permacrisis” — a word describing the feeling of living through a period of war, inflation, and political instability — leading Collins’s annual compilation of 10 words or phrases. Language innovations serve as a mirror reflecting the major concerns of society, and “Permacrisis” reflected the uncertainties in British life caused by Brexit, the pandemic, severe weather, the war in Ukraine, political instability, the energy crisis and rising inflation. No wonder “quiet quitting” — defined as “the act of doing one’s basic duties at work and no more, either by way of protest or to improve work/life balance” — also made the list.
Britain is also learning “Carolean”, the adjective relating to new King Charles III, soon after recovering from “Partygate”, the political scandal over parties held at 10 Downing Street in defiance of the public health restrictions that applied to everyone else.
Soon after Collins’ announcement came the US Merriam-Webster’s word of the year, “gaslighting”, meaning mind-manipulating, grossly misleading, or downright deceitful — which was looked up more often than any other neologism. Merriam-Webster’s top definition for gaslighting is the psychological manipulation of a person, usually over a period of time, that “causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories” and typically “leads to loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s mental stability, and dependency on the perpetrator.”
Gaslighting happens in abusive relationships — between lovers, within a family unit, as a corporate tactic, among friends, and by politicians misleading the public. There’s even “medical gaslighting”, when a doctor dismisses a patient’s symptoms or illness by saying “it’s all in your mind”.
Next in the race to declare a Word of the Year was the Cambridge Dictionary, which surprised many by choosing “homer” as the word most searched for in 2022. It was looked up more than 79,000 times this year, and an amazing 65,401 of those views happened on May 5 — when it was the answer for that day’s popular Wordle quiz. Non-Americans who didn’t know the word existed (it’s short for a “home run” in baseball) looked it up in droves, and it won the Cambridge distinction.
Cambridge explained its selection by arguing that the choice of “homer” represented “the challenges of learning English in an increasingly connected world”. The differences among national varieties of English, they said, “can cause confusion in these international conversations — until we learn more about them!” In keeping with that, Macquarie Dictionary, in Australia, chimed in with “bachelor’s handbag” — a phrase used to describe a supermarket roast chicken carried home in a paper bag, “so quintessentially Australian”.
Finally, and as usual garnering the most attention, came the Oxford Dictionary, which famously hit the headlines last year with “vax” (and previously with “post-truth” and “selfie”). This time, for the first time in its history, the Oxford Word of the Year was decided by the public, “the true arbiters of language”, voting from a shortlist of three words — ‘metaverse’, ‘#IStandWith’ and the phrase ‘goblin mode’. Metaverse, of course, refers to the virtual world where people can live, work, shop, eat and make friends. #IStandWith is a hashtag recognising “the activism and division that has characterised this year,” according to Oxford University Press. But the winner, with an unexpectedly lopsided 93 per cent of the vote, was “goblin mode”, a new concept of rejecting societal expectations in favour of doing whatever one wants to. The term refers to “a type of behaviour which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations”. The hashtag #goblinmode is often used to challenge those telling you to be the “best version of yourself”. It captures the prevailing mood of individuals rejecting the idea of returning to ‘normal life’ after the pandemic.
As an American lexicographer observed: “Goblin mode really does speak to the times, and it is certainly a 2022 expression”. That should surely be the last word of this year!