Oxford Dictionaries announces ‘post-truth’ as 2016’s Word of the Year

The term has been in existence for roughly a decade, but the organization reported spikes in its use after UK’s EU referendum and the U.S. presidential election.

Those grappling with Brexit or President-elect Donald Trump’s recent victory now have a perfect descriptor for their feelings.

On Tuesday, Oxford English Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as its notable term of 2016.

The adjective means: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Though “post-truth” has existed for a decade, OED reported a spike in the term’s use, especially in relation to United Kingdom’s EU referendum and the United States presidential election.

The New York Times reported:

Katherine Connor Martin, the head of United States dictionaries at Oxford University Press, said it surged most sharply in June after the Brexit vote and Donald J. Trump’s securing the Republican nomination for president, making it an unusually global word.

“What we found especially interesting is that it encapsulated a trans-Atlantic phenomenon,” she said. “Often, when looking at words, you’ll find one that’s a really big deal in the U.K. but not in the U.S.”

“It has also become associated with a particular noun, in the phrase post-truth politics,” OED reported.

Time reported:

The word, selected by Oxford’s editors, does not need to be coined in the past year but it does have to capture the English-speaking public’s mood and preoccupations. And that makes this one an apt choice for countries like America and Britain, where people lived through divisive, populist upheavals that often seemed to prize passion above all else—including facts.

OED further explained in a blog post:

The compound word post-truth exemplifies an expansion in the meaning of the prefix post- that has become increasingly prominent in recent years. Rather than simply referring to the time after a specified situation or event – as in post-war or post-match – the prefix in post-truth has a meaning more like ‘belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant’. This nuance seems to have originated in the mid-20th century, in formations such as post-national (1945) and post-racial (1971).

“Post-truth” is a stark departure from last year’s light-hearted term—the “face with tears of joy” emoji.

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The adjective also beat out other top choices that include “glass cliff,” “Brexiteer,” “alt-right,” “adulting,” “hygge” and “coulrophobia.”

For linguists who decry OED’s yearly list, it might be helpful to remember that the organization’s goal isn’t dictating—or even suggesting—what words we should be using.

The Wall Street Journal’s Barton Swaim wrote:

The original Oxford English Dictionary, edited by the great lexicographer James Murray, was never meant to be a mere dictionary. Murray wanted to account for every sense of every word in standard English—an astonishingly ambitious aim, given the size and fluidity of the language.

… [T]he OED was and remains a historical dictionary, designed to show readers how words have been and are used, not how they should be used. It was meant to describe, not to prescribe. But the OED of the 19th and early 20th centuries hadn’t yet taken this doctrine to its logical conclusion. Its editors and financial backers and readers viewed the dictionary as a cultural institution of Great Britain, not as a postnational academic project. They were historians concerned with documentation and not schoolteachers concerned with rules, but the idea that “correctness” is a social construct would not have occurred to them.

OED’s annual high-profile addition also serves as an excellent PR move.

What do you think of 2016’s Word of the Year, Ragan readers?


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