Alexander Atkins

Dec 29, 2019

7 min read

2019 Word of the Year: Disinformation

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language” wrote the poet T. S. Eliot, “and next year’s words await another voice.” To that observation, we can add: this past year’s words also define the language, the conversations, or more accurately, the zeitgeist of the year. Before getting to my word of the year, let’s take a look at what three major dictionaries chose as their words of the year.

For 2019 Word of the Year, the editors of Oxford Dictionaries selected climate emergency. Climate emergency is defined as “a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it.” The editors explain their rationale for choosing this word: “Usage of the phrase climate emergency increased steeply over the course of 2019, and by September it was more than 100 times as common as it had been the previous year. The word climate has been central to 2019 overall, and features in a number of prominent phrases, but climate emergency stands out for a number of reasons. Statistically speaking, this represents a new trend in the use of the word emergency. In 2018, climate did not feature in the top words typically used to modify emergency, instead the top types of emergencies people wrote about were health, hospital, and family emergencies. These suggest acute situations of danger at a very personal level, often relating to the health of an individual. Emergency also frequently occurs, as in the phrase state of emergency to indicate a legal declaration of an acute situation at a jurisdictional level. But with climate emergency, we see something new, an extension of emergency to the global level, transcending these more typical uses.” While climate change sounds passive, the term climate emergency accurately evokes the impending global catastrophe. The editors of OED tip their hat to the editors of The Guardian that stated that “climate emergency, crisis, or breakdown” should be used to describe the global impact of climate change. Words that made the shortlist, that are closely related to climate emergency included: climate action, climate crisis, climate denial, eco-anxiety, ecocide, extinction, flight shame, global heating, net-zero, and plant-based.

For 2019 Word of the Year, the editors of Merriam-Webster selected they. They is a pronoun that is used used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary (neither entirely female nor entirely male). The editors noted that they was the most frequently looked up word on their website. Senior editor, Emily Brewster, elaborates: “Pronouns are among the language’s most commonly used words, and like other common words (think go, do, and have) they tend to be mostly ignored by dictionary users. But over the past year or so, as people have increasingly encountered the nonbinary use, we’ve seen searches for they grow dramatically. In 2019 the increase in lookups for they was so significant and sustained that it stood out from all the other top lookups when we went to analyze the data. People were clearly encountering this new use and turning to the dictionary for clarity and for usage guidance. Words that made the shortlist included: quid pro quo, impeach, crawdad, and the (after The Ohio State University filed a trademark application for the word as part of their name).

For 2019 Word of the Year, the editors of selected existential. Existential is an adjective defined as “(1) of or relating to existence. (2) of, relating to, characteristic of philosophical existentialism; concerned with the nature of human existence as determined by the individual’s freely made choices. The word, entering English in the late 1600s derived from the Latin verb existere (meaning “to emerge, to be”), is often used when the fact of something’s or someone’s very existence is at stake. So we speak of an existential threat (a threat to human beings and nonliving things, such as an ideology or country), or an existential crisis (What is my purpose in life? What is the meaning of life?). The editors explain their choice, “Existential, as a word and theme, was prominent in discussions of topics that dominated 2019: climate change, gun violence, and democratic institutions. It also popped up in lighter stories in popular culture, signaling its place in the cultural zeitgeist. [Moreover,] Existential inspires us to ask big questions about who we are and what our purpose is in the face of our various challenges — and it reminds us that we can make choices about our lives in how we answer those questions. Words that made the shortlist included: polar vortex, threatened species, vulnerable, endangered, manifesto, screed, white supremacy, stochastic terrorism, mass shootings, exonerate, purview, and quid pro quo.

For 2019 Word of the Year, Atkins Bookshelf has selected disinformation. Disinformation is defined as “false information deliberately and sometimes covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to obscure the truth or influence public opinion.” If you are a student of literature, you know that disinformation is at the heart of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. The novel grew out of his experience of fighting in the Spanish civil war. Orwell believed that “the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.” When the book was published in 1949, no one imagined that Orwell’s cynical and dark vision could become reality — and yet, here we are. In a brilliant essay in The Guardian about the legacy of Orwell’s 1984, Dorian Lynsey writes: “Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the book we turn to when truth is mutilated, when language is distorted, when power is abused, when we want to know how bad things can get. It is still, in the words of Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, ‘an apocalyptical codex of our worst fears.’ The phrases and concepts that Orwell minted have become essential fixtures of political language, still potent after decades of use and misuse: newspeak, Big Brother, the thought police, Room 101, the two minutes’ hate, doublethink, unperson, memory hole, telescreen, 2+2=5 and the ministry of truth… In 2016, the world changed. As Trump took the White House, Britain voted for Brexit and populism swept across Europe, people took to talking anxiously about the upheavals of the 1970s and, worse, the 1930s.” Orwell could never have imagined the power and reach of the Internet, making it even easier for extreme ideologues, commentators, ideologues, political organizations, and foreign governments to plant well-coordinated disinformation campaigns to impact critical issues such as gun violence, healthcare, immigration, women’s rights, democracy, climate crisis, rape, and sexual harassment.

One of the most prominent individuals engaged in disinformation is considered to be the most powerful individuals in the world: President Donald Trump. And the disinformation began right on Day One; Lynsey explains: “January 2017. Another man stands before a crowd, which is not as large as he would like, in Washington DC, taking the oath of office as the 45th president of the United States of America. His press secretary says that it was the ‘largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.’ Asked to justify such a preposterous lie, the president’s adviser describes the statement as ‘alternative facts.’ Three years later, according to The Washington Post, Trump has made more than 15,413 false or misleading claims (as of December 10, 2019).

Trump is a prolific one-man Twitter disinformation machine, dispensing a steady stream of untruths, rants, conspiracy theories, and insults to his more than 67 million followers. Lynsey assesses Trump this way “It must be said that Trump is no Big Brother. Nor, despite his revival of such toxic phrases as ‘America First’ and ‘enemy of the people’, is he simply a throwback to the 1930s. He has the cruelty and power hunger of a dictator but not the discipline, intellect or ideology… The president also meets most of the criteria of Orwell’s 1944 definition of fascism: ‘Something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class… almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘fascist.’… It is truly Orwellian that the phrase ‘fake news’ has been turned on its head by Trump and his fellow authoritarians to describe real news that is not to their liking. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani accidentally provided a crude motto for Versionland USA when he snapped at an interviewer: “Truth isn’t truth!”… During a speech in July 2018, Trump said: ‘What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.’ A line from Nineteen Eighty-Four went viral: ‘The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.’”

Despite Orwell’s warnings, modern society let it happen: we now live in a world filled with disinformation and lies — and it takes a great deal of effort to find the truth. The role of independent critical, analytical thinking has never been more important; to quote one of Orwells’ greatest admirers, Christopher Hitchens: “It matters not what you think, but how you think.” Lynsey concludes his essay this way: “In its original 1949 review [of 1984], Life correctly identified the essence of Orwell’s message: ‘If men continue to believe in such facts as can be tested and to reverence the spirit of truth in seeking greater knowledge, they can never be fully enslaved.’ Seventy years later, that feels like a very large if.”


If you enjoyed this please visit Atkins Bookshelf, the blog that explores the world of ideas — through books, movies, music, quotations, and the English language — for the intellectually curious. The goal of Bookshelf is to educate, entertain, and inspire. At the heart of Bookshelf is a lifelong love of books and literature. Join here: