2019 Words of the Year (WOTY)

As in past years, I’ve come up with a list of words of the year. I do things a bit differently than other such lists in that I don’t try to select one term to represent the entire year. Instead, I select twelve terms, one for each month. During the year as each month passed, I selected one word that was prominent in public discourse or that was representative of major events of that month. Other such lists that are compiled at year’s end often exhibit a bias toward words that are in vogue in November or December, and my hope is that a monthly list will highlight words that were significant earlier in the year and give a more comprehensive overview of the planet’s entire circuit around the sun. I also don’t publish the list until the final week in December; selections of words of the year that are made in November (or even earlier!), as many of them are, make no sense to me. You cannot legitimately select a word to represent a year when you’ve got over a month left to go.

My list is skewed by an American perspective, but since I’m American, them’s the breaks—although I have deliberately limited the number of Trump-related terms; given his ability to dominate the news cycle day in, day out, the list would otherwise be all Trump all the time.

I interpret word loosely to mean a lexical item, including phrases, abbreviations, hashtags, and the like. The selected words are not necessarily, or even usually, new, but they are associated with their respective month, either coming to widespread attention or relating to some event that happened during it.

So, here are the 2019 Wordorigins.org Words of the Year:

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January: extirpation. Stirps is Latin for stem or root, and extirpation is literally the complete removal of a tree or other plant, including the stump and roots. The word has been used in English since the seventeenth century. But the reason extirpation makes the list this year is that it has a specialized meaning in biology, where it refers to the complete elimination of a species in a geographic region—as opposed to extinction, which refers to the elimination of a species globally. In January, the last herd of caribou, a.k.a. reindeer, in the contiguous United States had been reduced to just three does, largely as a result of habitat destruction because of intensive logging. These last three animals were captured and airlifted out of Idaho to join a healthier herd in British Columbia, Canada. So, while caribou herds are healthy in Alaska, Canada, Europe, and Siberia, they have been extirpated in the lower forty-eight States. We are in the midst of a massive, global extinction event, due mainly to human activity, and this is just one small part of it.

February: complexifier. The marital infidelities of a billionaire, while perhaps titillating, are not world-changing events. But when you’re Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, owner of the Washington Post, and at last count the richest person in the world, when you use a non-standard word like complexifier when you mean complication, people are bound to comment on it, opining that it isn’t a “real word.” Of course, it is a “real word,” just a non-standard one. And while it is true that complexifier isn’t in the OED, complexify, complexification, complexifying, and complexified are.

March: meritocracy. This word originated in socialist discourse in the 1950s with calls for a system to replace Britain’s traditional aristocracy. (It’s often claimed that the word was coined satirically, and while there is one famous satirical work that prominently uses the word, its origin is definitely serious.) But meritocracy came to the fore in March with the revelations that several famed Hollywood actors had bribed officials to boost their children’s SAT scores and to gain admission to the University of Southern California, actions that exposed the lie that education in the United States is based on merit, not privilege. (Ironically, the school involved, USC, jokingly known as the University of Spoiled Children, has a reputation for admitting the ne’er-do-well offspring of the rich and famous. One would think that if one were to resort to bribery, then aiming a bit higher would be in order.)

April: redact. I said I was limiting, not ignoring, Trump-related words. In April, Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller released his long-awaited report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and Donald Trump’s alleged complicity in it. The report was heavily redacted, that is portions were blacked out either to protect intelligence sources and methods or to safeguard the integrity of related investigations that were ongoing. Redact has been around since the fifteenth century, but for most of its history it has meant to set something down in written form and later to edit a document. But in the 1950s, it began to be used in government circles in the current sense of censoring portions of a document, and this sense has come to dominate its use.

May: milkshake. This month saw a brief craze of milkshaking right-wing politicians, most famously Britain’s Nigel Farage, that is throwing the contents of a milkshake on them when they appeared in public. Some of those on the right accused the protesters of using cement in the milkshakes, but this was a myth; the protests were all-dairy. And like many such fads, the media flurry was bigger than the phenomenon itself.

June: concentration camp. On 18 June, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to the detention centers where the U.S. government was holding undocumented immigrants as concentration camps. The furor that arose was stoked in large part by the use of the term concentration camp to refer to the Nazi extermination camps during World War II. But Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term was in keeping with the overall historical use of the term as a place to detain political prisoners and unwanted people. Concentration camp actually dates to 1897 and the Cuban war for independence, during which the Spanish created such camps on that island. It was subsequently used to refer to the camps set up by the British in South Africa during the Boer War (1899–1902).

July: extradition. Protests erupted in Hong Kong over a proposed law that would allow mainland China to extradite prisoners from that autonomous city. When Britain turned its colony of Hong Kong over to China in 1997, a “one country, two systems” policy was put in place, where Hong Kong largely governed itself. Over the subsequent decades, China has been gradually reducing the city’s autonomy, and that came to a head over this proposed extradition law, sparking the widespread protests. Even though the bill was withdrawn, the protests have continued through the rest of the year. Extradition is the legal process where prisoners are transferred from one jurisdiction to another, either between nation-states or, as in the United States, between states. The term dates to mid nineteenth century.

August: rainforest. Fires erupted throughout the Brazilian rainforest, largely as the result of people deliberately clearing the land for agriculture. While this use of fire is a perennial issue, this year, emboldened by the election of the right-wing Bolsonaro government intent on developing the Amazon basin, the number of fires has been significantly higher. The Amazon rainforest releases significant amounts of oxygen and stores incredible amounts of carbon, which is then released when it burns, so its destruction could have a devastating impact on the earth’s climate and biosphere. The term rainforest entered English vocabulary in 1903, a translation of the German Regenwald.

September: prorogue/prorogation. In September 2019 during the run-up to the UK’s Brexit from the European community, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked the queen to prorogue parliament, that is to discontinue its meetings without formal dissolution. The queen granted the request. Prorogation is a commonly used but little noticed parliamentary tool, and in the UK it’s traditionally used in a pro forma manner in the few days leading up to a new session or a new election. But Johnson used it to end debate on Brexit and prevent backbenchers from taking any action on Brexit contrary to what he wanted. This particular use was declared unconstitutional and overturned by the UK Supreme Court, and parliament returned to session on 25 September as if it had never happened.

October: quid pro quo. This is Latin for this for that and is a standard legal phrase used in contracts and in crimes such as bribery. The phrase rose to prominence in October in relation to the allegations that Donald Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine in return for that country announcing it was launching a corruption investigation against Joe Biden, Trump’s political rival.

November: OK Boomer. The phrase went viral this past November. OK Boomer is a dismissive reply by a young person directed at a Baby Boomer (or an older person regardless of which generation grouping they happen to belong to). Like many such memes, it burned itself out quickly and doesn’t seem likely to have much staying power. Still, for a few weeks in November it went big.

December: impeachment. Despite all efforts to do so, it seems that Donald Trump cannot be avoided, and we end the year on a Trump note. On 18 December, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump, making him only the third president in U.S. history to be impeached. (The other two were Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. In 1974, Richard Nixon resigned before the House voted to impeach him.) The next step is in the U.S. Senate, which will hold a trial to determine if he should be removed from office and barred from public office in the future. Neither Johnson nor Clinton were convicted by the Senate, and few expect that Trump will be. (Nixon almost certainly would have been convicted and removed if the process had continued.) Impeachments of federal judges have been more common over the years, with fifteen impeached and eight convicted, with one other resigning before the Senate could act. The most recent judicial impeachment was in 2010.

Honorable Mentions
There are two runners-up that don’t fit the mold of a word-for-a-month. These are two words that were prominent throughout the year (unfortunately so given their subject matter) but didn’t come to the fore during any one particular month.

measles. Outbreaks of measles kept cropping up around the world in 2019. At the end of the year, the situation in Samoa is serious. Many in the developed world think of it as a childhood illness of little consequence, but it’s highly contagious and can be deadly. It’s also easily prevented by a vaccine. But vaccination rates have fallen in many areas below that necessary to maintain herd immunity. This decline is due to various reasons: the anti-vaccination movement that falsely promotes the idea that vaccines are worse than the diseases they prevent, the conspiracy theory that they are a genocidal plot the West uses to target the developing world, the cost of the vaccine is prohibitive in much of the world, and local political unrest disrupting vaccination programs. The name measles in English dates to the fourteenth century and comes from a common Germanic root masel, meaning pustule or blood blister, via either Dutch or German.

trafficking. To traffic is to carry out trade or business. The verb appears in English in the sixteenth century, coming from French. It is often used where the trade or business is illegal. The word’s significance in 2019 is from its use in human trafficking, which is either the illegal movement of people across borders so they can engage in labor or the use of force or coercion to obtain someone’s labor. The most notorious type of human trafficking is for sex work, although this constitutes a relatively small set of those trafficked. The word rose to prominence in 2019 due to the arrest and subsequent death in jail of Jeffrey Epstein, a multi-millionaire who procured underage women for the rich and powerful men in his social circle.

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