Fear not the dull days between All Hallows’ Eve and Guy Fawkes Night! The Collins’ Word of the Year award is here to spice up the festive interregnum! Although, in the interests of full disclosure, I thought it was going to take me most of the interval just to work out how to punctuate the latter celebration. But it turns out that the grammatical rule is that commemoration does not equal possession, and the fact that the two merge in my mind (if you’re commemorated, it’s YOUR night, isn’t it? Your big night!) is neither here nor there, apostrophically speaking.
But back to the big news! Here, without any further ado, are the five top contenders – words Collins have identified (by monitoring word output across all forms of media and by consulting their 4.5 billion word database) as having most grown in visibility over the past year, reflected social and cultural developments, and gained traction for reasons both good and bad. Collins does not judge. It merely investigates and records. Until it does judge, and names one of them Word of the Year, obviously.
Most strikingly, perhaps, “unicorn” has made the list. Beloved by everyone in the sense of “mythical silvery-white horse with spirally horn – capable of detoxifying poisoned water and curing disease – sprouting from its forehead, ripe for religious and secular symbolism since the days of antiquity and in modern times for multiple exploitative merchandise opportunities attached to cartoons for children too young to have yet developed critical faculties”, it has more recently developed a meaning loved by a rather smaller demographic, as shorthand for a new business launch (usually tech) that quickly becomes valued at over a billion dollars. This is not quite as rare as “real” unicorns, though if you’ve watched any of the Mike Judge comedy Silicon Valley you will know that the process by which they become valued at such astronomical amounts is almost as fabulous and mystical as the legend of the beast itself.
Then there’s “gig economy”. Officially, this is an economy in which there are few permanent employees and most jobs are assigned to temporary or freelance workers. On the upside, giggers have total freedom and flexibility to work pretty much whenever suits them. On the downside, they also have total freedom from things like pensions and sick pay. But it generally works out okay if you’re a) in your 20s and therefore never sick and never going to get old and need all the spare time you can get to work on your unicorn app idea and b) as there are enough gigs and enough economy to go round. Which there totally will be, forever. Don’t worry so much!
“Echo chamber” – an environment, especially on a social media site, in which any statement of opinion is likely to be greeted with approval because it will only be read or heard by people who hold similar views – has also had a busy year. It is a misleadingly tranquil-sounding phrase, conjuring visions of cool stone rooms lightly dotted with people leaning against pillars and murmuring soothing words to each other, while a string quartet plays lightly in the background. Really, we need a different one for the cacophony that, even amongst friends, is the social media experience. “Group howling into the void” might do.
A more uplifting sighting on the shortlist “cuffing season”; the period of autumn and winter, when single people are considered likely to seek settled relationships rather than engage in casual affairs. Which all goes to prove what I have long believed – that when it comes to deep and lasting happiness, it must be forged in a willingness to kick leaves together, bundle up rather than strip off and a willingness for the larger party to give the smaller free rein over his sweaters in order to double her allowance without effort or expenditure.
But the Word of the Year award goes to… “fake news”. This is, of course, false – often sensational – information disseminated under the guise of news reporting. And it’s everywhere. Trolls are now coordinating. Partisan news channels no longer verify anything. Newspapers still try but print journalism’s entire fact checking service is just one guy frantically sifting through a yellowing set of cuttings in a shed in Des Moines while he tries to call experts on a landline the Russians cut off months ago. Democracy, as we knew it, is over. Propaganda is king. Happy Bonfire Night! Burn everything.
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