This year, every word of the year had a political meaning—some good and some bad. "Fake news" was the clear winner, but there were some interesting WOTY surprises too.
Before you completely psychologically move on to 2018, let’s have some fun looking back on the words of the year from 2017.
Collins Dictionary, American Dialect Society and the News on the Web Corpus: Fake News
The clear winner in the word-of-the-year follies was “fake news,” chosen by at least three different organizations: the American Dialect Society, Collins Dictionary, and the News on the Web Corpus.
The American Dialect Society word is based on a live vote by people who attend the Linguistic Society of America annual meeting, which I had hoped to attend this year but didn’t because of travel problems. It looks like a lot of fun, and in addition to “fake news” as the word of the year, attendees also chose “broflake" as the most creative word of the year, blending “bro” like “dude” with the last part of “snowflake,” and defined as “a man or boy who lacks resilience or coping skills in the face of disagreements or setbacks.” They also chose “#MeToo” as the hashtag of the year.
“Fake news” also won in their “most likely to succeed” category. Previous “most likely to succeed” winners included “marriage equality” and “to ghost” (meaning to abruptly end a relationship by cutting off communication, especially online).
Collins is a British dictionary and noted a 365% increase in the term “fake news” in 2017 over 2016. The Collins blog post talked about the term emerging in 2016 when people noticed a large number of false news stories about US presidential candidates and then about how the term really took off in 2017 when it started being thrown around by politicians to describe any story they didn’t like.
I was still a journalism professor in 2016, teaching social media, and I remember being really alarmed by all the fake news stories on Facebook, and then being just dismayed when the term “fake news” became politicized in 2017 because it made it so much harder to talk about the real problem. But people were using the term noticeably more often in 2017.
The News on the Web Corpus is run out of Brigham Young University by Mark Davies, and it also chose “fake news” as the word of the year based on data, looking at words that showed a big increase in use over the previous year and controlling for how often a word is or has been used in general. They found that in their corpus, “fake news” was used “more than five times as much in 2017 as it was in 2016,” so an even bigger increase than Collins saw.
“Alternative facts,” which won “euphemism of the year” in the American Dialect Society voting, came in second in the News on the Web analysis.
A couple of other interesting things emerged from the News on the Web corpus:
First, although use of the name “Trump” only increased by about 50%, they found a big increase in words derived from “Trump,” including “Trumpism,” “Trumpworld,” “Trump-like,” “Trumpery,” and so on.
Second, they found that “fidget spinner” had a spike in late May of 2017, but fizzled out, which matches what I saw on store shelves. They seemed to be everywhere, but only for a while.
Every other 2017 word-of-the-year winner also had a political sensibility.