browse channels
  • The year “elite” changed its meaning: a linguistic review of 2016

    Posted by on December 07, 2016

    © PHOTODISCIt’s been a busy year. In 2016, the US elected a new president, while Britain voted to leave the European Union – and both events left a big linguistic trail. Brexit had already been in Macmillan Dictionary since 2013, but in June its meaning changed, from referring to the (unlikely) possibility of Britain exiting the EU, to something that was actually going to happen. The first thing new prime minister Theresa May said was that “Brexit means Brexit”, and you don’t have to be a lexicographer to know that this isn’t a very satisfactory definition. (Imagine looking up parsimonious to find it defined as “parsimonious means parsimonious”.) It’s not surprising Mrs May was a little vague about what Brexit meant, because no-one was prepared for it: the outcome of the EU referendum was as unexpected as the election of Donald Trump in the US. Both results were marmalade droppers (or muffin chokers if you’re a speaker of American English) – the kind of event that’s so surprising it makes you drop your marmalade (or choke on your muffin) when you read about it at breakfast time.

    It’s traditional for dictionaries to announce their “Word of the Year” (WOTY) around this time, and there are two ways of approaching this. You can either nominate a word that has been coined recently and acquired great relevance: thus, for example, the new word selfie was WOTY in several dictionaries in 2013. Alternatively, your WOTY could be an already well-established word which – for whatever reason – has seen a big spike in its usage. Oxford Dictionaries followed the first model, naming post-truth as its WOTY, while Dictionary.com opted for xenophobia, a word first used in English around 1900 but suddenly “popular” in 2016. Both are excellent choices, reflecting the linguistic fallout of a year dominated by game-changing political events. But more on that later.

    First, let’s look at some of the new words that made it into Macmillan Dictionary during 2016. The list of abbreviations used in social media continues to grow, with (among many others) tbf, idc, IIRC, and TBH added in 2016. Other recent manifestations of new technology include nowcasting, piquotes, ad blockers and textual harassment. And what about those people who are so engrossed in their phones that they bump into things (or into other people)? Well now we have not just one word for talking about them but three: they’re called smombies (the word may have originated in Germany) or deadwalkers, while the phenomenon itself is distracted walking. (We clearly need a word for this, so it will be interesting to see which of these survives as the accepted term.) Smombie (from “social media zombie”) is a good example of a blend, and blending is one of the main mechanisms by which new words are coined. Contributors to our crowdsourced Open Dictionary submitted hundreds of these in 2016, including smize, mipster, manterrupt (which joins mansplaining and manspreading), femoir, and (a favourite of mine) disemvowel. Liz Potter will be doing a round-up of Open Dictionary action during the year, so I won’t say more about that here.

    So, finally, to the linguistic side-effects of the big political events of 2016. In a few weeks from now, Donald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States, following the biggest political upset in living memory. The election campaign was often vicious, with wild exaggerations from all sides. Some of Trump’s pronouncements (and the counter-accusations of his rivals) led to a big surge in the currency of words such as misogynist, sociopath, xenophobia, and narcissism, with many dictionary publishers reporting a sharp rise in look-ups for all these words. One of the strangest incidents was a flurry of pro-Trump stories appearing on fake “news” sites, many of which had been invented by teenage hackers in a small town in Macedonia. They claimed, for example, that the Pope supported Trump, and that Yoko Ono had an affair with Hillary Clinton in the 1970s. The late US senator Daniel Moynihan was famous for saying that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts” – but events in 2016 contributed to the sense that we were living in a post-truth era. Yet despite the post-truth nature of much online discourse, Trump supporters branded the MSM (mainstream media: the traditional news outlets) as liars.

    Meanwhile in the UK, the referendum on EU membership set off a tsunami of wordplay, as the word Brexit morphed into Bremain, Regrexit, and many others. The term buyer’s remorse, which describes the sense of regret when you’ve bought something which you’re no longer sure you really want, also enjoyed a brief moment of popularity as its use was extended to describe some voters’ feelings.

    In Britain, too, a post-truth atmosphere prevailed. Another theme that united events on both sides of the Atlantic was the notion that “the establishment” of the rich and powerful was out of touch (another popular expression in 2016) with ordinary people. Thus, the billionaire New Yorker Donald Trump portrayed himself as an outsider battling against the elite. Similarly in the UK, the pro-Brexit Nigel Farage (who was educated at an expensive private school), condemned the elite, as he attended a party in his honour at the Ritz Hotel organized by his millionaire friends. None of these people, apparently, belonged to an elite. Conversely, those who voted against Brexit – almost half the population – are characterized by their opponents as an elite who are out-of-touch with “real people”. So if I had to nominate a WOTY, it would be elitenot only because its frequency reached new heights during the year, but because it now seems to mean whatever anyone wants it to mean.

    What do you think? We’d love to hear your nominations for the Word of 2016 – you can use the Comments box to tell us. Thanks!

    Email this Post Email this Post Comment Here (0)
View all posts
  • Don’t dis this prefix

    The prefix dis- is commonly added to words to give them an opposite or contrasting sense. It entered English from Latin dis-, or in some cases from Old French des-. On his affixes website Michael Quinion says the prefix ‘had various linked senses in Latin, such as reversal, moving apart, removal or separation’, or sometimes […]

    Read the full article
  • Language and words in the news – 2nd December, 2016

    This post contains a selection of links related to language and words in the news. These can be items from the latest news, blog posts or interesting websites related to global English, language change, education in general, and language learning and teaching in particular. Feel free to contact us if you would like to submit a link […]

    Read the full article
  • Language tip of the week: happy times and situations

    In this weekly post, we bring more useful content from the Macmillan Dictionary to English language learners. In this series of language tips to accompany the Real Vocabulary theme we look at how you can expand your vocabulary in English by using different words and expressions instead of core vocabulary items. This set of language […]

    Read the full article
  • Barbershop Shakes

    Welcome to our fourth and final guest post from The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company. This one is by Peer Leader Ryan Henry. THSC is a music theatre production company that explores the social, cultural and linguistic parallels between the works of William Shakespeare and that of modern day hip-hop artists. _____________ “400 years later, it’s 2016 […]

    Read the full article
  • Seachangers, salad days and skim milk

    In her third and final post about the links between the language of Shakespeare and the language of today, BuzzWord author Kerry Maxwell shows how the Bard’s metaphors live on in modern English. _____________ In Australian English, the word seachanger has in recent years become the catchy new way to describe a person who shuns […]

    Read the full article
  • Language and words in the news – 26th November, 2016

    This post contains a selection of links related to language and words in the news. These can be items from the latest news, blog posts or interesting websites related to global English, language change, education in general, and language learning and teaching in particular. Feel free to contact us if you would like to submit a link […]

    Read the full article
  • Real World English – Holiday and vacation

    Welcome to the third in this series of posts on Real World English by Ed Pegg. In this series of videos and blog posts we are looking at how words are used in context around the world and how differences in usage in different countries and cultural contexts can cause misunderstanding. We look at differences […]

    Read the full article
  • Language tip of the week: having a positive attitude

    In this weekly post, we bring more useful content from the Macmillan Dictionary to English language learners. In this series of language tips to accompany the Real Vocabulary theme we look at how you can expand your vocabulary in English by using different words and expressions instead of core vocabulary items. This set of language […]

    Read the full article
  • Open Dictionary Word of the Month: jackrabbit

    The blog schedule has been rather crowded lately, so this post looks at Open Dictionary submissions for two months, September and October.  Submissions were slightly up in September and again in October, but the number of rejected entries was up too, with approval levels for both months falling below 30% for the first time since […]

    Read the full article
  • ‘Net migration’: when does a term move from policy into the press?

    Our latest guest post looks at the fascinating topic of the language used to talk about migration. Will Allen is a Research Officer with The Migration Observatory and the Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS), both based at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the ways that media, public opinion, and policymaking […]

    Read the full article
  • Language and words in the news – 18th November, 2016

    This post contains a selection of links related to language and words in the news. These can be items from the latest news, blog posts or interesting websites related to global English, language change, education in general, and language learning and teaching in particular. Feel free to contact us if you would like to submit a link […]

    Read the full article
  • Language tip of the week: extremely happy because something good has happened

    In this weekly post, we bring more useful content from the Macmillan Dictionary to English language learners. In this series of language tips to accompany the Real Vocabulary theme we look at how you can expand your vocabulary in English by using different words and expressions instead of core vocabulary items. This set of language […]

    Read the full article

Recent Comments

Recent Comments
  • Posted by Kerry to What language should we be teaching? on November 24, 2016 Thanks for this Andrew. Really interesting piece and reassuring for me as a fledgling materials writer too - I'm working with Macmillan on a new series of worksheets called 'Language For' on the One stop english site, Our ethos is to look at scenarios which are useful to students but perceived as a little more 'niche' in that they're not so commonly found in coursebooks, e.g. http://www.onestopenglish.com/skills/vocabulary/macmillan-dictionary-resources/language-for/language-for-online-shopping/ ...

  • Posted by Liz to US election word of the week: electoral college on November 21, 2016 So the unlikely and unexpected (by most people) happened and Donald Trump won the US presidential election. With more than 99% of votes counted, he has 290 electoral college votes to Hillary Clinton's 230. But the result is surprising in another way, because Clinton has won the popular vote by a very large margin with, at the time of writing, over 62.5 million votes to Trump's 61.2 million (third party candidates gained just under 6.5 million)....

  • Posted by Mark Boles to Language and words in the news – 18th November, 2016 on November 21, 2016 Greetings. This may be trivial but the search for this word is driving us crazy. The word means "to leave". It is similar in sound to esquagitate or exquagitate _ (but I cannot find it under any spelling I can come up with) Thanks for any consideration and sorry if this is a head-scratcher.

  • Posted by Stan Carey to Dictionary labels part II: the offensive 'lunatic' on November 14, 2016 After a couple of high-profile uses (and subsequent apologies) by Tiger Woods and Weird Al Yankovic, Mark Liberman wrote at Language Log about the divergence: how "spaz and the longer form spastic have become innocuous playground slang in the US but a grave insult in the UK".

  • Posted by Stan Carey to Top of the morning to yourself on November 14, 2016 Thanks for letting us know, Tammy. I think I've wiped much of that film from memory since watching it years ago! But I'm not surprised that it features the phrase. It's interesting how "Top of the morning..." is so well known as a greeting despite not being very common in actual use.