Word of the Year Dictionary

This Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, photo shows the word "existential" in a dictionary in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Dictionary.com picked “existential” as the word of the year. The choice reflects months of high-stakes threats and crises, real and pondered, across the news, the world and throughout 2019. 

Fancy words go in and out of fashion, positing an existential temptation to overuse them like salt.

The late 1990s gave us “literally.” People literally used “literally” to emphasize almost any point — even one no reader or listener could mistake as a figurative gesture.

Phrases like “the traffic made me late” became “the traffic literally made me late.” National Public Radio hosted linguists to discuss abuse of the word. Nearly 20 years after “literally” misuse was modish, NPR’s “All Things Considered” featured the owner of a New York bar, The Continental, for banning “literally” as "the most overused, annoying word in the English language.”

Dictionary publishers keep track of fashionable words and designate an annual “word of the year.” Some are phrases, such as the 2016 selection of “dumpster fire.” It seemed one could sum up every bad idea, failed plan, or soured relationship as a “dumpster fire.” I.e., “Those two should not get married. They're a dumpster fire!”

Webster’s chose “they” in 2015, as sloppy use of the plural pronoun became common as a gender-neutral reference to singular subjects. “If a person is accused, they are assumed innocent.” Never mind the option of “a person accused is assumed innocent,” and other easy escapes from the mangled use and redefinition of “they.” What a dumpster fire!

“Existential” is the “dumpster fire” of 2019. Like, literally. Dictionary.com on Monday announced “existential” as the word of the year.

Nothing is merely threatening, or disdainful, or imminent in 2019. Anything worth complaining about has become a problem of “existential” proportion. It has devolved into a common way to exaggerate. Global warming is not a threat to the survival of humanity. It is somehow more than that. It is an “existential” threat to survival.

Former Vice President Joe Biden helped popularize the term by emphasizing his dislike for President Donald Trump.

“I believe that the president is literally an existential threat to America,” Biden said during an Iowa stump speech in June.

Then came Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg. She literally did more to popularize “existential” than did the former vice president.

"I think we need to inform them and start treating the crisis like the existential threat it is,” Thunberg said this summer during a congressional hearing.

If we are threatened, it goes without saying the threat is existential. Much like a toaster, it exists.

If global warming threatens survival, the threat is of “existential” nature. The nuanced philosophical term has become a common redundancy used like an exclamation point.

An Associated Press story about our word of the year says “Climate change, gun violence, the very nature of democracy and an angsty little movie star called Forky helped propel 'existential’ to Dictionary.com’s word of the year.”

Forky is a toy in the movie Toy Story 4, made of a pipe cleaner, plastic “spork” and a Popsicle stick. The toy raises questions about the meaning of existence. Forky has reason to wax “existential”; Biden, Thunberg and other alarmists… not so much.

In a perfect world, the year 2020 would pose an existential threat to the careless use of “existential” and the apocalyptic drama it promotes. With its word of the year status, we should leave “existential” to exist existentially as the dumpster fire relic of an oddly hyperbolic era-gone-by. Literally.


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