“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language” wrote the poet T. S. Eliot, “and next year’s words await another voice.” To that observation, we can add: this past year’s words also define the language, the conversations, or more accurately, the zeitgeist of the year. Each year, editors of major dictionaries review the stats on their respective websites to spot dramatic spikes in word lookups to determine which words capture the interest of the public. They develop a list and then debate which one merits the distinction of “word of the year.”
For 2018 Word of the Year, the editors of Oxford Dictionaries selected toxic. Toxic is defined as “(1) poisonous, (2) relating to or caused by poison, or (3) very bad, unpleasant, or harmful.” The editors explain their rationale for choosing this word: “In 2018, toxic added many strings to its poisoned bow becoming an intoxicating descriptor for the year’s most talked about topics. It is the sheer scope of its application, as found by our research, that made toxic the stand-out choice for the Word of the Year title. Our data shows that, along with a 45% rise in the number of times it has been looked up on [online dictionary], over the last year the word toxic has been used in an array of contexts, both in its literal and more metaphorical senses.” The contexts include, in order of frequency: chemical, masculinity, substance, gas, environment, relationship, culture, waste, algae, air. Words that made the shortlist included: gaslighting, incel, techlash, gammon, big dick energy, cakes, overtourism, and orbiting.
For 2018 Word of the Year, the editors of Merriam-Webster selected justice. Justice is defined as “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.” The editors justify their selection: “The concept of justice was at the center of many of our national debates in the past year: racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, economic justice. In any conversation about these topics, the question of just what exactly we mean when we use the term justice is relevant, and part of the discussion.” Words that made the shortlist included: nationalism, pansexual, lodestar, epiphany, feckless, laurel, pissant, respect, maverick, and excelsior.
For 2018 Word of the Year, the editors of Dictionary.com selected misinformation. Misinformation is defined as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.” The editors point out the difference between two related words: “The meaning of misinformation is often conflated with that of disinformation. However, the two are not interchangeable. Disinformation means ‘deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda.’ So, the difference between misinformationand disinformation comes down to intent… Further confusing the issue is the fact that a piece of disinformation can ultimately become misinformation. It all depends on who’s sharing it and why. For example, if a politician strategically spreads information that they know to be false in the form of articles, photos, memes, etc., that’s disinformation. When an individual sees this disinformation, believes it, and then shares it, that’s misinformation.” The editors explain why they selected misinformation: “While the word misinformation has been around since the late 1500s, the nature of how information spreads has gone through drastic transformations over the last decade with the rise of social media. For most individuals on social media, fact-checking is an afterthought, if it is a thought at all, and misinformation thrives. This year, we saw technology platforms grapple with the role they play in the spread of misinformation.” The editors cite several specific examples: Cambridge Anayltica’s work on Facebook to influence Brexit and 2016 U.S. Presidential election; fake political ads on Facebook, Facebook’s allowing postings by Holocaust deniers, and impact of Facebook and WhatsApp on the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Myanmar. Words that made the shortlist included: representation, self-made, and backlash. This year, the editors also listed a number of terms associated with misinformation, their word of the year: disinformation, post-truth, fake news, bubble, filter bubble, echo chamber, confirmation bias, implicit bias, influencer, gatekeeper, homophily.
For 2018 Word of the Year, Bookshelf has selected complicit (and by extension the noun form, complicity, the state of being complicit). Complicit is defined as “(1) choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others; (2) having partnership or involvement in wrongdoing.” One is reminded of the famous quote attributed to Irish political philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Or consider an even more dramatic quote attributed to Dante Alighieri, who wrote the famous epic poem The Inferno: “The hottest [or darkest] places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.” Collusion, defined as “a secret agreement for an illegal purpose,” is a synonym for the first meaning of complicity; however, collusion (being very specific about an illegal act) is not synonymous with the secondary meaning of complicity (being very general — being involved on some level with wrongdoing, such as knowing about it, but not being the chief perpetrator).
Just look at any of the major news stories from the past year and you will distinctly see that ogre, complicity, rearing its ugly head in each case. In all of these narratives, one person (or several people) who should know better could have spoken up and either stopped or exposed the wrongdoing; however, for whatever reason, they chose to remain silent — they chose to be complicit. Want specifics? For your consideration, think of the executives at several entertainment companies who looked the other way while high profile, powerful individuals sexually abused and/or harassed subordinates over decades. Think of elected officials in Congress who looked the other way while President Trump degraded the integrity of the office of the President, eroded the institutions of bipartisan government, recklessly attacked the press calling the fourth estate “the enemy of the people,” destroyed the concept of “truth” by consistently lying (The Washington Post has kept track of them: as of this writing Trump has made 7,644 false or misleading claims, averaging about ten a day), and commanded his sycophantic, obdurate appointees to throw out key regulations and laws that protect most Americans on several fronts (dismantling the EPA, attempting to eliminate affordable healthcare, repeal of consumer protection rights, shocking treatment of immigrants, reducing taxes only for the upper class, eliminating debt relief for students defrauded by for-profit colleges… the list goes on), not to mention all the findings of complicity coming to light as a result of the Mueller investigation. Think of the bishops and priests at the highest level of the Catholic Church that looked the other way while priests sexually abused thousands of innocent young boys and girls over several decades. Think of the university leaders that looked the other way while coaches or doctors sexually abused young athletes. Think of the executives at the most powerful social media companies who looked the other way while hackers and data-mining companies influenced Brexit as well as the U.S. 2016 Presidential and 2018 mid-term elections.
Let us end the year with some hope. For that we turn to Yehuda Bauer, professor of Holocaust studies at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who delivered a speech to the German Bundestag on January 27, 1998. The quotation gained greater recognition when Bauer included these lines in a speech to the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust on January, 26, 2000. Bauer said, “I come from a people who gave the Ten Commandments to the world. Time has come to strengthen them by three additional ones, which we ought to adopt and commit ourselves to: thou shall not be a perpetrator; thou shall not be a victim; and thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.” So let us not forget that commandment in 2019 and beyond “thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.” Expressed another way, help your fellow man or woman — don’t be complicit when you see that they are being harmed in some way.
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