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‘Cancel culture’, ‘existential’, ‘climate emergency’ are words of the year

The words are meant to reflect the zeitgeist of 2019, and it’s all a big, grim mood

As humanity balances precariously on the edge of existence, the 2019 words of the year have been announced, and fittingly, they’re “existential”, “climate emergency”, and “cancel culture”.

Each year, dictionaries select a word of the year to reflect an important aspect of the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year that are regarded as having a lasting cultural significance.

Oxford Dictionaries has declared “climate emergency” the word of the year after a 100-fold increase in the word’s usage in the last 12 months, which suggests a “greater immediacy” in the way we talk about our impending environmental doom.

Defined as a “situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it,” Oxford Dictionaries said the phrase has soared from “relative obscurity” to “one of the most prominent – and prominently debated – terms of 2019”. Earlier this year, the UK officially declared a climate emergency, becoming the first parliament in the world to pass a motion of this kind.

With its focus on the language used to discuss the climate, rather than simply the increase in climate awareness, the rise of “climate emergency” reflects a conscious push towards a language reflective of the immediacy and urgency surrounding environmental issues.

“In 2018, climate did not feature in the top words typically used to modify emergency, instead the top types of emergencies people wrote about were health, hospital, and family emergencies,” the selection panel said. “But with climate emergency, we see something new, an extension of emergency to the global level.”

They continued: “In 2019, climate emergency surpassed all of those other types of emergency to become the most written about emergency by a huge margin, with over three times the usage frequency of health, the second-ranking word,” Oxford said.

Elsewhere, Dictionary.com chose “existential” as its word of the year, and considering this generation’s youth will get sick and die faster than previous generations, we’re not surprised.

The word can be defined as “of or relating to existence” or, “of, relating to, or characteristic of philosophical existentialism; concerned with the nature of human existence as determined by the individual's freely made choices”.

“The words we saw people looking up in 2019 signal a broader concern about safety, security, and survival, in ways both immediate and far-reaching,” Dictionary.com senior researcher John Kelly said in a press release. “Sustained interest in existential, in our lookup data as well as in the news and culture, reflects this collective grappling.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Kelly suggests: “The philosophical underpinnings of the word existential invite us to pause, shake off any pessimism or passivity, and ask: What choices do we make in the face of our challenges?”

For its word of the year, Macquarie Dictionary selected “cancel culture”, defined as “the practice of no longer supporting people, especially celebrities, or products that are regarded as unacceptable or problematic”.

“A term that captures an important aspect of the past year’s Zeitgeist...an attitude which is so pervasive that it now has a name, society’s cancel culture has become, for better or worse, a powerful force,” wrote the Macquarie Dictionary committee in a blog post.

In 2020, will climate emergency and impending climate doom cancel our entire existence? Big, existential, mooood!