In the era of Donald Trump and Brexit, Oxford Dictionaries has declared “post-truth” to be its international word of the year.
Defined by the dictionary as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, editors said that use of the term “post-truth” had increased by around 2,000% in 2016 compared to last year. The spike in usage, it said, is “in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States”.
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. The publisher’s US and UK dictionary teams sometimes plump for different choices – in 2009 the UK went for “simples” and the US for “unfriend”; in 2006 the UK went for “bovvered” and the US for “carbon-neutral” – but this year teams on both sides of the Atlantic chose the same word.
Contenders for the title had included the noun “alt-right”, shortened from the fuller form “alternative right” and defined as “an ideological grouping associated with extreme conservative or reactionary viewpoints, characterised by a rejection of mainstream politics and by the use of online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content”. First used in 2008, its use “surged” this spring and summer, said the dictionary, with 30% of usage in August alone. Brexiteer was also in the running for the crown, along with non-political terms including coulrophobia, the fear of clowns, and hygge, the Danish concept of cosiness.
But the increase in usage of post-truth saw the term eventually emerge ahead of the pack. “We first saw the frequency really spike this year in June with buzz over the Brexit vote and Donald Trump securing the Republican presidential nomination. Given that usage of the term hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our time,” predicted Oxford Dictionaries president Casper Grathwohl.
“It’s not surprising that our choice reflects a year dominated by highly-charged political and social discourse. Fuelled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time.”
According to Oxford Dictionaries, the first time the term post-truth was used in a 1992 essay by the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich in the Nation magazine. Tesich, writing about the Iran-Contra scandal and the Persian Gulf war, said that “we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world”.
“There is evidence of the phrase post-truth being used before Tesich’s article, but apparently with the transparent meaning ‘after the truth was known’, and not with the new implication that truth itself has become irrelevant,” said Oxford Dictionaries. The publisher pointed to the recent expansion in meaning of the prefix “post-”, saying that “rather than simply referring to the time after a specified situation or event – as in post-war or post-match”, in post-truth it had taken on the meaning of “belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant”. The nuance, it said, originated in the mid-20th century, and has been used in formations such as post-national (1945) and post-racial (1971).
Post-truth has now been included in OxfordDictionaries.com, and editors will monitor its future usage to see if it will be included in future editions of the Oxford English Dictionary.
The rest of the shortlist
adulting: noun, informal
The practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks.
An ideological grouping associated with extreme conservative or reactionary viewpoints, characterised by a rejection of mainstream politics and by the use of online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content.
Brexiteer: noun, informal
A person who is in favour of the United Kingdom withdrawing from the European Union.
A computer program designed to simulate conversation with human users, especially over the internet.
Extreme or irrational fear of clowns.
glass cliff: noun
Used with reference to a situation in which a woman or member of a minority group ascends to a leadership position in challenging circumstances where the risk of failure is high.
A quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or wellbeing (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture).
A person of Latin American origin or descent (used as a gender-neutral or non-binary alternative to Latino or Latina).
woke: adjective, US informal
[Originally in African-American usage] Alert to injustice in society, especially racism.