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2022’s hottest words were peculiar and depressing, which … makes sense


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By AJ Willingham, CNN

How was your 2022? Did you spend it going into full goblin mode, trying to distract yourself from the general feeling of permacrisis brewing about you? Perhaps you had to stave off gaslighting of some sort, or learned more about the theatrical (literally) origins of the term.

Every year, the top arbiters of the English language tease out the most noteworthy, zeitgeist-y words to describe the current moment. Sometimes they’re fun, or educational. Sometimes, they reveal a world that’s gone, well, a little feral. Here’s quick look at this year’s offerings:

Oxford Languages: goblin mode

“a type of behaviour which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.”

This term was popular on social media, and despite its negative implications, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes our inner goblin must be fed.

Collins Dictionary: permacrisis

“an extended period of instability and insecurity”

Collins, a British dictionary, also noted nine other words of the year, most of which have a very “permacrisis” air to them, especially partygate, Kiev and lawfare. Oh, there’s also splooting: “the act of lying flat on the stomach with the legs stretched out.”

Merriam-Webster: gaslighting

“the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.”

Merriam-Webster noted that searches for this term increased 1740% this year. Never an organization to shy away from the political side of things, MW specifically connected this term to the ubiquity of fake news and conspiracy theories.

Other top words from MW this year were oligarch, omicron, codify and queen consort. Truly a mini tour of international news, from Roe v. Wade to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Oh, but that’s not all! Choices from other international English language giants really add some color to the confusing tapestry that was 2022:

Cambridge Dictionary: homer

“Short for home run: a point scored in baseball when you hit the ball, usually out of the playing field, and are able to run around all the bases at one time to the starting base”

Don’t be fooled! You can draw a direct through-line between this common sports term and “goblin mode,” since interest in “homer” spiked after it was featured in the online game “Wordle” — a daily staple for goblins and wordsmiths everywhere. Non-American English speakers, however, were not pleased. (This is also an absolutely hilarious definition to American baseball fans, and hopefully we say a lot of sports things that give our British friends a chuckle in return.)

Macquarie Dictionary (an Australian English dictionary): teal

“A political candidate who holds generally ideologically moderate views, but who supports strong action regarding environmental and climate action policies, and the prioritising of integrity in politics”

The term comes from the fact that many of these candidates wore the color teal. Several such candidates prevailed in Australia’s federal elections this year. “Teal embodies the year that’s been, and truth-telling is the year that’s to come — let’s hope that’s the case,” the Macquarie committee said. “They’re both really important concepts, central to Australian culture and politics.”

When normal words just won’t do

So, to recap: There were a lot of crises this year, political and otherwise, and they exhausted us in ways we could barely describe. In fact, sometimes life got so weird we literally needed to invent new words to describe it.

Such words are called “neologisms,” or words that are fairly new on the English language scene. These are the greener phrases some old-school lexiphiles often pooh-pooh, raising their hands to the sky in lament for what the language has become. Then, there are those like literary icon Stephen King, who see these young words and know exactly what to do with them.

“When you come across a new word that just clicks, there’s something so comforting about the realization that someone else has had the same experience or thought,” says Martha Barnette, co-host of “A Way with Words,” a radio show and podcast.

Barnette says new words are thrown at us all the time; others arise organically to serve a certain purpose that others do not.

“The words that end up lasting are the ones that are useful, and that arise unobtrusively,” she says. “Some words are kind of imposed on us, from media or marketing, and those can be a flash in the pan.”

For the strictly rule abiding linguists among us, Barnette offers a reminder that dictionaries aren’t prescriptive — in that, they aren’t necessarily a record of how language should be used.

“They’re a reflection of how our language is, of how people are talking and using it,” she says.

Innumerable words that we use every day, like “laser,” “lonely” and “critic,” were once strange neologisms on the fringe of our usage. (Laser, of course, is actually an acronym, and we have Shakespeare to thank for “lonely” and, ironically, “critic.”) Neologisms can be formed from a word borrowed from another language, like “cliché;” shortening words, like “flu,” or smashing two words together. It’s also common for neologisms to stem from entertainment or media, like “gaslighting” does. Many are also portmanteaus, like “permacrisis.”

To truly come full circle, many of this year’s top words were once “sniglets” (which is, in and of itself, a neologism). A sniglet is a humorous term coined by comedian Rich Hall in the 1980s that describes “any word that doesn’t appear in the dictionary, but should.”

So congratulations, “splooting” and “goblin mode.” The sniglets have become promising neologisms, and now, for better or worse, they’re some of the most meaningful words of 2022. What does that say about us? Well, maybe we need a new word for that, too.

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