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Front Porch: Words ‘toxic,’ ‘justice’ seemed to define 2018

The word “justice” is displayed in a Merriam-Webster dictionary in New York. Merriam-Webster has chosen “justice” as its 2018 word of the year, driven by the churning news cycle and President Trump’s Twitter feed. (Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)

I like to start out every new year focusing on something I enjoy a lot – words. Not my usual curmudgeonly grammar rant – I’ll save that for later – but rather the Words of the Year, as chosen by national and international lexographers.

Over the years, it’s been a telling exercise. The chosen words have gotten darker, more political and increasingly fear-filled since back in 2013 when “selfie” was one of the selected words. Those were the good old days.

Various dictionaries and linguistic organizations choose their words of the year, usually in some combination of naming a word or phrase that appears to reflect the mood and preoccupation of the year and whose definition is being looked up in significantly increasing numbers over previous years and which is likely to be of cultural significance for some period of time.

The source I like best is the Oxford Dictionaries, which chose “toxic” as its Word of the Year for 2018. An adjective that means “poisonous,” it had a 45 percent increase in the number of times it was looked up on over the previous year.

Since it is a descriptor, the good lexographers at Oxford Dictionaries also listed the top nouns the word was used with last year: (in order) chemical, masculinity, substance, gas, environment, relationship, culture, waste, algae and air.

Clearly, we are all going to die.

And before leaving Oxford, I’d like to mention some of its runners-up, most of which are singularly British and perhaps not so recognizable in the USA. Two were particularly interesting to me – “cakeism,” the belief that it is possible to partake of two desirable but mutually exclusive options at the same time; and “overtourism,” the excessive amount of tourist visits to a popular place that results in damaging the local environment and historical locations, resulting in a poorer quality of life for local residents. I knew of the first but didn’t realize the second had become a thing.

Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2018 is “justice,” which has several meanings, depending on context (racial, social, criminal), but generally refers to fairness in the way people are treated. It was the top looked-up word at Merriam-Webster last year, consulted 74 percent more times than in 2017.

“Misinformation” is’s 2018 Word of the Year. Defined as false information that is put forth regardless of whether a person has intent to mislead, misinformation, often conflated with “disinformation,” the deliberate intent to mislead, has been rife throughout technology platforms, news media, social media and just word-of-mouth. Much can be written about it, to be sure, but suffice to say, it’s a word of significant impact on society.

Collins Dictionaries selected “single-use” as its Word of the Year for 2018. Simple definition: Made to be used only once. It was apparently selected from other words under consideration because of its prominence in news, politics, business and society, and especially in the context of the proliferation of such items and their environmental impact.

Among Collins’ shortlisted words is one I especially enjoy – “plogging,” a noun describing the activity of picking up litter while jogging.

I have to close by visiting Oxford Dictionaries one more time. The Children’s Dictionary department of the Educational Division of Oxford University Press has analyzed children’s writing as submitted to the BBC Radio 2’s 500 WORDS competition for the seventh year in a row to see how children are using language in new ways and to see what their interests and preoccupations are. There were 134,000 short stories received in the 2018 competition.

What I noticed in particular is that the selected word is not “princess,” “futbol,” “wedding,” “Peppa Pig” or even the grown-up “Brexit.”

The Oxford Children’s Word of the Year 2018 is “plastic.” There was a 100 percent increase in its use from the 2017 competition. I focus on this because the top words associated with “plastic” in stories from 2017 were bag, box, bottle, cup, chair, toy and spoon. In 2018, the accompanying words were bag, bottle, rubbish, ocean, fish, waste and pollution.

Those analyzing usage of the word “plastic” in the stories noted that for the first time, it was being used in an emotive context, with the recurrent theme association being pollution.

A quote from the Oxford Corpus Children’s Language Report comes from the short story submitted by one 5-year-old boy: “The Sea Kraken was very big and slimy and loved to eat seaweed, sea slugs and Pirate ships but he kept getting plastic bottles stuck in his throat which made him angry and sad.”

A 13-year-old girl, writing from the point of view of a plastic container, included this: “For you see, I am a plastic bag. I can’t be recycled and I’m not biodegradable. Yet people still take us. We don’t understand why. It’s not like there aren’t any other options.”

Ah, words. We can learn from them a lot about the focus, concerns and temperament of society. And even from the children.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by e-mail at

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