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The year “elite” changed its meaning: a linguistic review of 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!

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Michael Rundell

6 Comments

  • Great review of the year in words, Michael! Disemvowel was a favourite of mine too, and one I first saw while browsing new entries in the Open Dictionary.
    As for a word of the year: I hesitate to call it mine, because I haven’t thought about this much, but one word that would definitely be up there (and which hasn’t been named as a WOTY elsewhere, I think) is normalization. I’ve found it very useful in describing some of what’s going on politically this year – though I wish it were otherwise, since it’s generally bad things that are being normalized.

  • Post-truth was definitely the word of the year for me. Even though a couple of people I know were interviewed by folk giving them a really hard time for it, such as ‘it’s not a word, it’s two words!’ I think my favourite though was was this one from a right-wing radio ranter interview – ‘It’s not a word, it’s an adjective!’
    I would like to nominate an as-yet non-existent WOTY for 2017. Trexit.Because I know words. I have the best words.Let’s hope Trexit comes to pass.

  • Thanks Janet, that’s a great suggestion! Of course we already have a very strong candidate for 2017: ‘alternative fact’. And who know what else this year will bring.

  • Great article. One quibble: I don’t know the context of Theresa May’s remark, but I suspect she wasn’t actually offering a definition of “Brexit.” I think she was trying to say that there was no room for ambiguity, that leaving the EU was what the majority voted for and it was really going to happen. It was used in the same sense as the slogan “No means no,” which conveys the message that there is nothing equivocal about denial of consent to have sex. In other words, “no” doesn’t mean “maybe.”

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