November 23, 2016
“Post-truth” is the International Word of the Year
by Ryan Harrington
As we learned last week, the election has brought a number of new words into the public consciousness. We also learned that the results of the 2016 US Presidential Election seem to indicate that ours is a moment in which people trust emotion over reason. MobyLives must be on the razor’s edge of cultural discourse, because if you combine those two ideas, what do you get? The international word of the year.
That’s because Oxford Dictionaries has named “post-truth” the word of the Year of Our Lord 2016. It’s tempting to take the hyphenate to mean “boy, I wish nothing that happened this year were true, I wish we were post-truth.” But it’s a bit more complicated than that, and Oxford defines the word as an adjective describing a state of affairs “in which objective facts are less influential than appeals to emotion.” Dictionary editors found a whopping 2,000% increase in usage of the word over last year.
Why the spike? Because of those very things you wish weren’t true: the Brexit referendum and its juvenile delinquent American cousin, the election of Donald Trump. These are perfect examples of situations in which public opinion seems to have been swayed by appeals to emotion and nostalgia, causing voters to cast ballots against what reason and a good, hard look at the facts would have revealed to be against their own interests.
As Alison Flood writes for the Guardian, “Oxford Dictionaries’s word of the year is intended to ‘reflect the passing year in language’, with post-truth following the controversial choice last year of the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji.” Just a year ago we were post-words. Today we seem to be beyond the concept of objective truth. It’s hard not to read these selections as philosophically bleak.
The word “alt-right” was a strong contender for the award, which is perhaps the final example of how thoroughly debased our language, nay, our world, has become.
But perhaps there’s hope yet, as a few slightly more charming words nearly topped the list. “Hygge,” for example. That word gives name to the Danish concept of enjoying the simple pleasures in life. And in case you were doubting MobyLives’s role in the culture at large — we beat Oxford to that, as well. Some other contenders include “chatbot,” “Latinx,” and “woke” as in “I woke up like this — woke.”
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.