It’s official: 2018 is toxic.
Well, lexicographically speaking, at least. Oxford Dictionaries has chosen “toxic” as its international word of the year, selecting it from a shortlist that included such politically inflected contenders as “gaslighting,” “incel” and “techlash.”
Katherine Connor Martin, the company’s head of U.S. dictionaries, said there had been a marked uptick of interest in the word on its website over the past year. But the word was chosen less for statistical reasons, she said, than for the sheer variety of contexts in which it has proliferated, from conversations about environmental poisons to laments about today’s poisonous political discourse to the #MeToo movement, with its calling out of “toxic masculinity.”
In fact, Martin said, the committee initially considered choosing “toxic masculinity,” until it realized how widespread “toxic” itself had become.
“So many different things,” she said, “are tied together by the word.”
Oxford’s word of the year is chosen to reflect “the ethos, mood or preoccupations” of a particular year, but also to highlight that English is always changing. Last year’s winner, to the consternation of many, was “youthquake.” In 2016, it was “post-truth.”
“Toxic” derives from the Greek “toxikon pharmakon,” meaning “poison for arrows.” (The part of the phrase meaning arrows, rather than poison, became the basis for the word.) The current entry in the online Oxford English Dictionary dates its earliest known printed occurrence to 1664, in a book about forests.
For its first few centuries, it mostly referred to literal poisons. Martin mentioned one early metaphorical use included in the Oxford English Dictionary’s database of citations, from a 1913 Saturday Evening Post article about workplace injuries, referring to “the toxic carelessness of men dulled by long hours.” But such uses weren’t interesting enough to lexicographers to be included in the O.E.D. entry for “toxic” published in 1913.
But as concern about literal toxins expanded, Martin said, so did metaphorical uses of “toxic.” Things really took off in the 1980s, particularly in self-help books. The 1990s brought references to “toxic debt,” “toxic bachelors” (thank you, “Sex and the City”) and of course Britney Spears’s song “Toxic.”
But recently, there’s been an explosion in the use of the phrase “toxic masculinity.” The only grouping that has occurred more frequently over the past year in its sampling of online news sources and blogs has been “toxic chemicals,” Martin said.
Other words on the shortlist highlight different ways that words emerge or evolve. While “toxic” is an old and very common word that has expanded in usage, “incel” — short for “involuntarily celibate” — is an example of jargon used by a limited group that suddenly enters widespread usage.
In that case, it came to prominence in April, after it was reported that the young man who drove a van into a crowded sidewalk in Toronto, killing 10 people, appeared to be connected to a now-banned Reddit community of resentful self-identified male “incels.” (The word itself seems to have emerged first on a benign website called Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project, which aimed at helping people of all genders and orientations who had trouble dating.)
Another word from the short list, “BDE” (look it up, if you’re curious), is what Martin called “an Icarus word.” It went viral after Ariana Grande used it in a now-deleted tweet to describe her fiancé at the time.
“Such words are usually doomed to die,” Martin said. “It spread so fast it may be more a meme than a word.”
And then there’s “techlash,” defined as “a strong and widespread negative reaction to the growing power and influence of large technology companies, particularly those based in Silicon Valley.”
It’s the kind of word that occurs mainly in journalism, but doesn’t really exist in common usage. (It has appeared in only three articles in The New York Times, all since June, and mostly in scare quotes.)
While such words often vanish, some take hold and become what Martin called “real words.”
“My favorite example is ‘glamping,’” she said. “The first time I saw it, I thought, ‘This is a made-up journalism hook word.’ But now I have even used it myself.”
Follow Jennifer Schuessler on Twitter: @jennyschuessler
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