At this time of year, the media love to compile “best of” lists—the best books, movies, songs, or trends of the previous year. Dictionaries take up the challenge by selecting a Word of the Year—or WOTY—based loosely on the most frequent lookups, but also captures the year’s Zeitgeist, or Spirit of the Times. The past couple of years, these WOTYs were all Covid-related, like “pandemic” and “vax.” But thankfully, this year they are more varied and interesting.
America’s pre-eminent dictionary, Merriam Webster, chose gaslighting as its WOTY for 2022. This surprising choice represents a concept so slippery that even I had to look it up earlier this year when I encountered it in print! “A driver of disorientation and mistrust,” explains the MW website, “gaslighting is the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s own advantage. In this age of misinformation—of ‘fake news,’ conspiracy theories, Twitter trolls, and deepfakes, gaslighting has emerged as a word for our time” (merriam-webster.com).
The most fascinating thing about this word to me is its origin: it derives from the supremely creepy 1944 psychological thriller Gaslight, directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer—based in turn on the 1938 play of the same name by Patrick Hamilton. Bergman plays a trusting young woman whose husband strives to convince her she is insane in order to distract her from his criminal activities and gain control of her property. He tricks her into believing that she is a delusional kleptomaniac. As his mysterious activities in the attic cause the house’s gas lights to dim, he convinces her that she is imagining things and can’t trust her own perceptions. “The idea of a deliberate conspiracy to mislead has made gaslighting useful in describing lies that are part of a larger plan,” the MW website continues. Here is one (among many) example they provide of its use:
Patients who have felt that their symptoms were inappropriately dismissed as minor or primarily psychological by doctors are using the term “medical gaslighting” to describe their experiences and share their stories.
– The New York Times, March 28, 2022
Collins Dictionary chose permacrisis as its 2022 WOTY, defined as “an extended period of instability and insecurity.” This word “relates to ongoing crises the … world ha[s] faced and continues to face,” explains its website, “including political instability, the war in Ukraine, climate change, and the cost-of-living crisis”—not to mention the so-called tripledemic of viruses (collinsdictionary.com)! This word implies that people feel they are living in a constant state of crisis—similar to the “age of anxiety” moniker given to the 1950s, with the looming threat of nuclear war (that phrase stemmed from the title of a 1947 poem by W.H. Auden, and subsequent symphony by Leonard Bernstein). Collins also highlighted the phrase “quiet quitting”—that is, doing no more work than one is contractually obligated to do—and “lawfare,” the strategic use of legal proceedings to hinder or intimidate an opponent.
The Oxford Dictionaries, most highly regarded on both sides of the Atlantic, views the WOTY as “a word or expression reflecting the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the past twelve months, one that has potential as a term of lasting cultural significance.” Oxford University Press held a popular vote this year to choose its WOTY from three finalists: “metaverse,” a (hypothetical) virtual reality environment in which users interact with one another’s avatars and their surroundings in an immersive way; “#IStandWith,” used on social media to express solidarity with a specific cause, group, or person; and “goblin mode,” a slang term referring to “a type of behavior which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.” Much to my surprise—given that few Americans I have asked have ever heard it used—goblin mode was announced as the winner on Dec. 5 and became Oxford’s final 2022 WOTY.
“Goblin mode is like when you wake up at 2 a.m. and shuffle into the kitchen wearing nothing but a long t-shirt to make a weird snack, like melted cheese on saltines”
– The Guardian
Reflecting on a word that arose from the two+ years of pandemic isolation and lockdowns, American linguist and Wall Street Journal columnist Ben Zimmer explained that “goblin mode really does speak to the times and the zeitgeist, and it is certainly a 2022 expression. People are looking at social norms in new ways. It gives people the license to ditch social norms and embrace new ones” (languages.oup.com). I hope this doesn’t mean the pandemic has turned us all into goblins!
You might be surprised at dictionary.com’s choice of the seemingly common word woman as its 2022 WOTY. “Our selection of woman…,” explains their website, “reflects how the intersection of gender, identity, and language dominates the current cultural conversation and shapes much of our work as a dictionary. During the height of the lookups for woman on Dictionary.com in 2022, searches for the word increased more than 1,400% (a massive leap for such a common word).” Lookups especially spiked in February and March during the confirmation hearing for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, when Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn asked her, “can you provide a definition for the word woman?” Dictionary.com’s definition is “an adult female person.” Jackson’s response in the hearing was, “No, I can’t.” In the context of issues of transgender identity and reproductive rights, the meaning of this word has taken on new complexity.
Last but not least comes another British contender, Cambridge Dictionaries—according to their website, the world’s most popular online dictionary by page views. Their WOTY, chosen primarily for its being the subject of the most lookups this year, is a result of the Wordle Effect—that is, the runaway popularity of the addictive online game Wordle, in which players get six tries to guess a five-letter word, with right and wrong guesses flagged along the way. The May 5 answer homer, an informal term for a home run in baseball, left players of Wordle who were not familiar with the term feeling confused. Tens of thousands of Wordle players took to the Cambridge Dictionary to look up its meaning. So, homer became Cambridge’s unlikely WOTY for 2022. This word doesn’t really capture the spirit of the times, except insofar as it confirms the popularity of Wordle. Now owned by the New York Times, Wordle provides a new game every day, and is still free to play online.
Stay tuned: the American Dialect Society, which is dedicated to the study of the English language in North America and of other languages influencing or influenced by it, will announce its 2022 WOTY—the result of a vote by the membership—on January 6, 2023 (www.americandialect.org). The new year will undoubtedly bring new words and expressions to challenge and amuse us. Cheers, skol, prost, salud, and santé for a happy, healthy, and joyful 2023!