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Words of the 2010s
Illustration by Callum Abbott

Eight words that changed the way we see ourselves in the 2010s

Words of the 2010s

In the decade of identity politics, words like ‘toxic’, ‘woke’ and ‘snowflake’ came to define us

Deep fakes, influencers, viral fashion – we live in a world unrecognisable from the one we stood in ten years ago. As a chaotic decade comes to a close, we're speaking to the people who helped shape the last ten years and analysing the cultural shifts that have defined them. Explore the decade on our interactive timeline here, or head here to check out all our features.

It’s hard to cast your mind back to ten years ago, and think about the ways that language was different. But there are a whole bunch of words that we say often now and didn’t really use back then, like “nonbinary” or “woke”, for example. In fact, thinking about which words shaped the decade, it seems a lot of them are to do with who we are, or the way that we view ourselves, which makes sense given that the 2010s felt like the decade of identity politics. 

Why was that the case? Well, a global swing towards populism and the rise of some terrifying right-wing leaders left a lot of us feeling disillusioned with traditional party politics. Perhaps growing inequality and wealth divides coupled with a sense of injustice or oppression along race, class and gender lines made us reexamine our political affiliations – and look to one another. 

Or maybe, in the decade when we used more social media than ever before, we just got really, really self-obsessed.

Either way, despite what the right might say about the left (“political correctness gone mad!”) or what boomers might say about millennials and Gen Z (that we’re just a bunch of pathetic snowflakes), a lot of good actually came out of the shift towards identity politics in the 2010s. It made us more conscious about relative privilege and intersectionality, and it contributed to the energy of important social movements like SlutWalk, Black Lives Matter, trans and nonbinary visibility, and #MeToo and #TimesUp. And in return, these movements gave us new words that helped us to see the world differently, more clearly. 

Below, we take look back at the decade through the lens of eight of these new(-ish) words. 

WOKE

Ok so “woke” is not a new word. It comes from “stay woke”, used in African American communities to mean “keep yourself aware to political injustice, mostly racism”. However, its use by Black Lives Matter after the movement was officially founded in 2014 propelled it into much wider circles, and the word was soon co-opted by white people, as well as brands and marketeers. Its meaning also morphed slightly; “woke” kind of just became a byword for “politically correct”.

That a word which literally means “stay aware about racial inequality” was culturally appropriated seems beyond irony, but also sadly quintessentially 2010s. This was the era of “blackfishing”, tokenised diversity, and everyone everywhere saying “yaas” and “fierce” like they were in a Harlem ballroom. That so many people say “woke” without thinking about where the word actually comes from makes it another casualty of a hyperspeed internet culture where people constantly take and borrow without crediting or researching the facts. 

Woke’s rise in popularity in the 2010s also points to enduring racial inequalities in America, highlighted by some horrific moments including multiple police shootings of black Americans, Dylan Roof’s mass shooting in a Charleston church in 2015, and the Unite The Right Charlottesville rallies in 2017, along with the ensuing car terrorist attack on counter-protesters.

In 2019, the word came full circle when Barack Obama, America’s first black president, criticised “woke culture”. It had basically become call-out culture, he said, with people cancelling others online to virtue signal how woke they are. “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re politically woke, and all that stuff,” he said, “you should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”

SLUT

Over the course of the 2010s, feminists worked hard to take the word “slut” and reclaim it from an insult into a symbol of sex positivity, so the idea that women should be able to do whatever they want with their bodies, without worrying about the kind of societal double standards that tell us men can sleep around and women can’t, for instance. 

On January 24, 2011, a moronic and misogynistic Toronto police constable called Michael Sanguinetti ushered in a new, not-so-progressive decade by giving a talk on campus rape at a Canada university. “I've been told I'm not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised,” he told students, in a giant step back for mankind. But we quickly realised this view was common when just a month later, a Canadian judge in Winnipeg called Justice Robert Dewar made comments during a rape trial implying that the woman who was raped was partly responsible. 

In protest of these incidents, Canadian activists Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis organised a rally: “We want Police Services to truly get behind the idea that victim-blaming, slut-shaming, and sexual profiling are never acceptable,” Barnett said. Taking place on April 3 in Toronto, over 3,000 people showed up to the march, some wearing fishnets and underwear to make the point that women should be able to wear whatever the fuck they want in public. 

“If SlutWalk has a legacy, it’s the work it did to erode society’s deepseated Madonna-Whore complex”

The demo was called SlutWalk, and the concept quickly spread: by the end of 2011, sister events had popped up in Melbourne, London, and cities across the US, as well as Iceland, Korea, India, Brazil and other countries. In 2015, ex-stripper, ex-girlfriend of Kanye West and feminist campaigner Amber Rose started her own SlutWalk in LA (she called it Amber Rose’s SlutWalk – a classic Amber Rose move). 

The punk spirit of SlutWalk – slogans on a bare chest, balaclavas, unruly female anger – aped groups like FEMEN, the Ukranian radical feminists who protested topless at the end of the 2000s, as well as Pussy Riot. Its message reflected other anti-slut shaming campaigns or voices that sprung up in the 2010s too, like The UnSlut project, a campaign to counter sexually aggressive bullying in schools after the suicides of three young American girls, or the work of writer and journalist Karley Sciortino, aka Slutever

#Slutwalk was a key moment in ushering in fourth-wave feminism, and its global reach paved the way for the #TimesUpRally and the Women’s March. If SlutWalk has a legacy, it’s the work it did to erode society’s deep-seated Madonna-Whore complex, but in the criticism that it garnered, partly from sex-negative feminists who thought that “slut” wasn’t a word worth reclaiming, it reminded us that the work sex-positive feminists have to do is a long way from over. 

TROLL 

Imagine a time when we thought “troll” meant “a dwarf or giant in Scandinavian folklore inhabiting caves or hills”. Well, that’s what life was like in simpler times, before 2014, which is when the dictionary revised the word’s meaning to include: “a person who intentionally antagonizes others online by posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content”. 

Today, we think of “trolling” as simply winding someone up – not just online but also offline. However, for a while, it felt more sinister. In 2014, trolling seemed to converge with harassment as #gamergate, an anti-feminist attack on female developers in the video game industry unfolded. #gamergate was basically a bunch of anonymous creeps and angry alt-right bros sending women rape threats and doxing them. Not quite trolling, no – online harassment is illegal, trolling is not – but it did make us stop and consider what these kinds of keyboard warriors were motivated by. (Clue: misogyny). 

“At some point, while ignoring the pond scum of the internet, we realised that we actually cared much more about what the more politically correct voices online thought of us”

Trolling as a concept sums up two difficult truths that we learned way back in the early days of social media, the 2000s: that we are willing to behave in dramatically different ways online than off, and that this behaviour is hard to moderate. Twitter was meant to be the Roman Forum, instead, we got the Colosseum – a load of people savaging each other for sport.

Over the 2010s, we came to understand that yes, some trolls were extremists, but a lot of trolls were victims of bullying themselves, or just people crying out for attention. “Don’t feed the trolls,” we were told, until at some point while ignoring the pond scum of the internet, we realised that we actually cared much more about what the more politically correct voices online thought of us. Suddenly, getting cancelled became a much scarier fate than getting trolled. 


INFLUENCER 

It wouldn’t be a list of words of the decade without this defining piece of marketing jargon. We all know what “influencer” means: someone who wields the influence, particularly in the digital sphere, to encourage their army of loyal followers to buy something. If the late 2000s gave us Instagram, the 2010s gave us its stars; the Bella Hadids, Kylie Jenners and Luka Sabbats of this world, and the modern parable of Caroline Calloway. 

These influencers sit at the intersection of so many other would-be words of the decade: they sell us wellness, they’re usually clad in athleisure, they take a shit ton of selfies, they apparently invented sadfishing, and if they fuck up badly enough, they become scammers, whether they meant to or not. But in some ways, haven’t they been scamming us all along? 

recent article on Wired remembers how, at the beginning of influencer culture, in about 2006, we were outraged and concerned that bloggers could be sent products for free or given money to try to promote something to us, unsuspecting consumers. Rules were put in place to improve transparency, but then we gradually got desensitised to scrolling through seeing murky spon con all day anyway. As we viewed more of it, influencers multiplied, and so did their paychecks (Kim K can reportedly charge $1 million for a post), and with these rewards came the problem of engagement fraud, and the pressure to buy followers. 

We already knew that influencers didn’t make us feel great about ourselves, but in the second half of the decade, shitstorms like Fyre Festival and Calloway made us question the authenticity of influencers as a concept, while things really entered a surrealist parody hellscape around the time we got given nonexistent CGI influencers. Then, with the invention of micro-influencers, the influencer concept was democratised into pointlessness. Finally, when the Pope called the Virgin Mary an influencer, we knew it had basically lost all meaning. 

And yet, somehow, as we enter the 2020s, the influence of the influencer prevails: a recent survey of American kids found that, for 86 per cent of them, it was a dream job. If that’s not depressing, what is?

NONBINARY 

It’s the cusp of 2020, and there are still less nonbinary celebrities than we can count on two hands; Jonathan Van Ness, Sam Smith, Asia Kate Dillon, Tommy Dorfman, Amandla Stenberg, Lachlan Watson and Ruby Rose being the main examples. It’s a strong reminder that identifying as “nonbinary” was most definitely not a thing we really knew or thought about back in 2010, despite versions of the term – like two-spirit in Indigenous North American communities or X-gender in Japan – being around for a while. In fact, “they”/ and “them” pronouns were only added to the dictionary as singular, non-gender-specific in September 2019. 

Nonbinary people will know well the eternal agony of trying to have their “they”/ “them” pronouns respected by people who are slow to grasp or just unwilling to learn. But on a wider scale, even some of the most so-called “progressive” countries in the world when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights and gender equality are not embracing the legislation or social changes required to actually recognise nonbinary people’s existence. Countries like The Netherlands and Sweden have all fallen behind in pan-European rankings on LGBTQ+ rights, failing to show progress in terms of how gender is legally recognised. 

Yet, the fact that more and more people are identifying as nonbinary – in the public eye or otherwise – is slowly eroding the conception that everyone falls into one of two gender categories. Merriam-Webster recently reported that searches for “they” increased by 313% in 2019 on 2018, meaning that more people are looking into its meaning. 

In spite of a hostile climate for trans and gender-nonconforming people right now, the work nonbinary people and their allies are doing to dismantle the gender binary and the stereotypes that come with it will change the way that we think about gender in the 2020s in ways that we can’t yet imagine.

ADULTING 

Trending around 2016, “adulting” makes the list of words that changed the way we see ourselves because, despite the fact you may not have actually heard it, or if you did, you probably found it incredibly annoying, it sadly encapsulates the generation that came of age – or rather didn’t – in the 2010s. 

According to some definitions, “adulting” meant holding down a nine to five job or saving up for a mortgage. So, you know, doing traditionally adult things. But it was also used to describe the more silly cultural signifiers of adulthood, like having a supply of wrapping paper in your house. Or else just really banal life things, like cooking dinner and doing your washing. The fact that “adulting” needed to exist as a phrase at all was telling: growing up was no longer a given, but something we needed a stupid neologism for.

Post-2008 recession, we saw a continued shift back – in the West, at least – of the age at which people could afford to buy a house, get married and viably have kids. The proliferation of convenient apps for everything, like Deliveroo or Uber, infantilised us while giving us a new way to waste the small amount of money we’d never be able to do much with anyway, while the rise of dating apps like Tinder and Hinge made it feel less like there was a “One” and instead quite possibly many. 

“Demographers have always placed us in generational categories. But it feels like we became increasingly obsessed with doing it for ourselves in the 2010s”

We were no longer hitting our life markers, no longer meeting a life partner at 18 and settling down at 21, as per the now bizarre seeming old standard. “Adulting” described a group of economically challenged and emotionally stilted people, simultaneously broke (at least compared to their parents) and yet spoiled for choice. 

Demographers have always placed us in generational categories. But it feels like we became increasingly obsessed with doing it for ourselves in the 2010s. (See quintessentially millennial TV shows like Girls and viral phrases like “OK boomer”.) “Adulting” was in some ways born out of this obsession. But it didn’t take us long to feel grossed out by how twee, middle class, and according to some people, sexist the phrase was. Maybe it was just too on the nose. 

Or perhaps, ironically, we just outgrew it; Gen Z, supposedly more self-aware than Gen Y, know better than to think cooking yourself dinner is anything to be particularly proud of, especially when the world is burning

TOXIC 

The phrase “toxic masculinity” has been around for a few decades, but the 2010s was the era that the media really picked it up as a kind of catch-all term that speaks to the social pressures put on men to be aggressive, dominant or competitive. It’s a phrase that defined the decade because of the #metoo movement, because of men like Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein. 

But you don’t have to be an (alleged) rapist to be a solid example of what toxic masculinity can look like (however studies have found that sexist attitudes do lead to sexual violence). Some other examples are also quintessential 2010s buzzwords: mansplaining, gaslighting, and in the extreme, incel culture, incels being involuntary celibates: men who feel rejected by women so seek out revenge. 

When Gillette made an advert about toxic masculinity in January 2019, the response and backlash it received showed divisions over the idea of dismantling toxic masculinity. Some praised the advert as groundbreaking, arguing that the pressures of toxic masculinity weighed so heavy on men that they’re probably contributing to high rates of male suicide in Britain and America. Others said that the video simply reinforced the idea that men are all violent thugs or abusers, while Men’s Rights Activists argued that men should be men, and act how they want. 

The debate took a real dive when certain women waded in to defend men, like Meryll Streep, who claimed that “we hurt our boys by calling something toxic masculinity. Women can be pretty fucking toxic… It’s toxic people.” Ok, so that might have one small strain of truth, but this is also the woman who wore a T-shirt that said “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” and told the Berlin film festival “we’re all Africans really”. Two real low points of the 2010s. 

SNOWFLAKE 

How could a list of the words that made the 2010s be complete without “snowflake”? It was 2016 when Brett Easton Ellis famously used it to describe easily offended and overly entitled millennials, while he was defending an article written by an LA Weekly journalist about Sky Ferreira’s sex appeal. “Oh, little snowflakes, when did you all become grandmothers and society matrons, clutching your pearls in horror at someone who has an opinion about something, a way of expressing themselves that’s not the mirror image of yours, you snivelling little weak-ass narcissists?” he asked wryly

The same year, “snowflake” was named a word of the year, and we got a lengthy analysis in the book I Find That Offensive! by Claire Fox, which asked, “how did we become so thin-skinned?” 

As much as they’d probably love to claim it, the “snowflake” conversation was much bigger than Ellis and Fox. Remember no-platforming? It was the argument about free speech that peaked back in 2014, when a speaker making pro-Israel comments was booed off stage at Galway University, and in 2015, when students at Cardiff University tried to stop Germaine Greer appearing in a debate, due to transphobic comments she had made in the past. 

“Quickly, someone came up with ‘broflake’: when a man gets upset by progressive attitudes that don’t align with his more conservative views”

The idea, a simple one, was not to give a stage to hate speech and especially not to let it into spaces that were meant to be safe. But a lot of people considered this outright censorship, throwing cultural appropriation and trigger warnings into the same boat while they were at. 

By 2017 “snowflake” contorted from a slur thrown at liberals by people on the right (and especially the alt-right) into a more general political insult, as people started to call Trump a snowflake. (Quickly, someone came up with “broflake”: when a man gets upset by progressive attitudes that don’t align with his more conservative views.) 

Like a lot of the words of the 2010s, it lived and died quickly, as we soon found something else to argue about. But in many ways “snowflake” is a lightning rod for how the culture wars of the 2010s played out: a never-ending screaming match over who is allowed to say what and an ongoing competition over who was most offended. Here’s to the 2020s!