Incels, gaslighting and Big Dick Energy
26 December 2018 15:26
The last of the lexicographers has weighed in: Merriam Webster announced its word of the year as ‘justice’ – at the centre of much of the public debate in America in 2018 according to Peter Sokolowski, the dictionary’s editor-at-large: ‘Racial justice. Social justice. Criminal justice. Economic justice.’ While most people know what the word means and how it’s spelled, ‘it’s often familiar words for abstract concepts that are the most looked up words in the dictionary,’ he added.
The U.S. Department of Justice is sometimes referred to as simply ‘Justice’, not least in tweets by President Donald Trump. The word saw an increase in search traffic in response to coverage of the ongoing Mueller investigation – including the potential obstruction of justice – as well as news about evolving cannabis legislation, support for a lawsuit against opiate manufacturers, a proposed ban on bump stocks (firearm attachments), and the Tesla investigation. In its use as a title for Supreme Court judges, ‘Justice’ also came up frequently during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.
Other words that saw a spike in lookups on Merriam Webster’s website this year were ‘nationalism’, after Trump used it at a rally in Texas; ‘pansexual’, when Janelle Monáe self-identified as such in Rolling Stone; ‘and ‘lodestar’, used in reference to the late Senator John McCain in the New York Times op-ed penned by an anonymous official in the Trump administration. Merriam Webster also tipped a hat to ‘feckless’, used by television host Samantha Bee as a modifier for ‘cunt’ – the prickliest of profanities to an American ear – directed at Ivanka Trump with regards to her father’s immigration policies.
England, alas, can’t much boast of a jollier ambience this holiday season. ‘The difference between the political climate in the U.K. and in the U.S. these days,’ wrote Rebecca Mead in the New Yorker, ‘feels like the difference between depression and psychosis.’ That was back in August, before the last few calamitous chapters of the Brexit saga. Two of Oxford Dictionaries’ shortlisted words for 2018 – ‘cakeism’ and ‘gammon’ – relate specifically to political goings-on in the UK. ‘Cakeism’ is the belief that one can have one’s cake and eat it, too – a metaphor used for the discussion of the terms of Brexit. ‘Gammon’ – cured ham with a distinctive pink hue – has been used as ‘a derogatory term for an older middle-class white man whose face becomes flushed due to anger when expressing political (typically right-wing) opinions,’ as Oxford Dictionaries explains it.
The word that best embodied the ethos of 2018 in the eyes of Oxford Dictionaries, earning the distinction of its word of the year, was ‘toxic’. From the Latin toxicus, ‘poisoned’, the word is originally rooted in the Greek – toxikon (pharmakon), or (poison for) arrows, from toxon, ‘bow’. Within Oxford’s corpus, the top collocate (word used alongside) toxic was chemical, reflecting reporting about the nerve agent used in the Salisbury attacks. Among the top ten collocates were also toxic substance, toxic gas, toxic waste, and toxic algae– an indication that environmental issues are drawing to the forefront (when we’re able to take our eyes off of the political shitshow dominating the news for a hot second). Cambridge Dictionary’s short-listed ‘ecocide’ and The Telegraph’s Travel’s endorsement for ‘overtourism’ as the word of the year also reflected environmental concerns, as did Collins Dictionary’s winner ‘single-use’ – with images from David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II episode on the effects of plastic on marine life singed into our collective consciousness. Toxic environment itself is more frequently used to describe noxious work environments – from Google to the House of Commons.
Masculinity was the second-most frequent collocate with toxic, a reflection of the #MeToo movement and the controversial Kavanaugh hearings. Toxic masculinity refers to an unhealthy species of masculinity arising from exaggerated traditional gender roles. While the term ‘MeToo’ itself only showed up as the frontrunner in a reader poll by The Independent, a related word to toxic masculinity –‘incel’– made Oxford Dictionaries’ shortlist and was one of the Financial Times’ selections for their ‘year in a word’ (also included were ‘crypto’, ‘backstop’ and ‘Merkeldämmerung’). Short for ‘involuntary celibate’, ‘incel’ is a self-descriptor adopted by members of an online subculture of men who are unable to obtain sex, which they believe to be their due. Incels express vehement misogyny, sometimes with tragic consequences, as when self-professed incel Alek Minassian allegedly drove a van into a group of pedestrians in Toronto in April, killing ten people.
Still on the subject of masculinity, ‘Big Dick Energy’ –‘an attitude of understated and casual confidence’ – was also among Oxford Dictionaries’ runners-up, leaving even the BBC to ponder who does and does not exude this potent power. First used in a Twitter eulogy for Anthony Bourdain, the term went viral in a fan’s reply to a tweet by Ariana Grande in which the singer had alluded to the endowment of her then-fiancé, Saturday Night Live comedian Pete Davidson. ‘Though the term has its roots in the perceived confidence of the well-endowed,’ explains Oxford Dictionaries, ‘BDE is by no means exclusive to those with male genitalia.’ Women who have been identified as exuding Big Dick Energy include Rihanna, Cate Blanchett, Serena Williams and Cardi B. (To my disappointment, The Economist’s language blog, Johnson, has left ‘Big Dick Energy’ untouched.)
‘BDE’ makes a cameo appearance in Grande’s music video for ‘thank u, next’, a song about her ex-boyfriends, showing up emblazoned on a deliveryman’s uniform in the place of the ‘UPS’. The video also refers to another of Grande’s exes, the late rapper Mac Miller, with whom she has said she had a ‘toxic relationship’. Another frequent collocate, toxic relationships can run the gamut from personal to political, as does another of Oxford’s shortlisted words, ‘gaslighting’: psychological manipulation that makes someone doubt his or her own sanity. The term hit U.K. headlines in relation to both Love Island and Strictly Come Dancing. In the U.S., it has been used ‘extensively’ of Trump, whose ‘frequent assertions that the media are spreading “fake news”, and implications that his administration is the sole arbiter of truth’ have led to comparisons with an abusive relationship, observes Oxford Dictionaries.
The persistence of fake news casts a long, ominous shadow on the lists. Dictionary.com crowned ‘misinformation’ as its 2018 word of the year, continuing the trend from ‘fake news’ (the 2017 selection for both Collins and the American Dialect Society) and Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 winner ‘post-truth’. Dictionary.com took care to specify that they had chosen the prefix ‘mis-’ over ‘dis-’ because misinformation can be spread intentionally or unintentionally, whereas ‘dis-’ implies the deliberate dissemination of falsehoods. ‘Russian troll farms engage in disinformation; when unwitting Americans share those posts, that’s misinformation – which, in the end, is the bigger problem,’ The Economist concluded.
While opinions differ on how much targeted advertising may have moved the needle in elections, there’s no doubt that social media platforms have facilitated the spread of misinformation. Neither Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate testimony nor the implementation of GDPR laws in Europe managed to dispel doubts about data privacy in the wake of Cambridge Analytica. With increasing calls for regulation, 2018 saw valuations for the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google) taking a beating and an increase in the use of the word ‘techlash’.
Techlash notwithstanding, we still find ourselves tethered to our smartphones: Cambridge Dictionary’s readers chose ‘nomophobia’ (no + mobile + phobia) – the fear or worry of being without or unable to use your mobile phone – as the word of the year. In an English PEN H.G. Wells lecture, American author and editor Dave Eggers suggested that every aspect of our lives that has migrated online has been rendered the weirder for it. Case in point: in the realm of digital dating, ‘orbiting’ – also on Oxford’s shortlist – has joined its cousins ‘ghosting’, ‘breadcrumbing’ and ‘back-burnering’ in the lexicon of ambiguous breakup methods. Coined by Anna Iovine in an article on Man Repeller, ‘orbiting’ is the habit of hovering on someone’s social media profiles after breaking off direct contact, thereby keeping the individual in your life but at a safe distance: ‘close enough to see each other; far enough to never talk.’
It all makes one long for simpler times: the 2005 of ‘sudoku’, say. Before the ‘post-truth’ era of 2016, Oxford Dictionaries’ 2013 winner was ‘selfie’, 2014 saw ‘vape’ take the prize, and the 2015 ‘word’ of the year, the face-with-tears-of-joy emoji – while a horror linguistically – was at least, well, joyful. This year’s additions to the Scrabble Dictionary at least add some levity – including the delightful ‘frowny’, ‘bestie’ and ‘twerk’ (delightful, that is, when not evoked while interviewing an accomplished athlete). The words now allowed on the Scrabble board also include high-scorers such as ‘zomboid’, ‘qapick’ (an Azerbaijani monetary sub-unit) and ‘bizjet’. (Playing a 10-pointed Z and an 8-pointed J is ‘almost as good as being able to buy an expensive and unnecessary transportation device’, suggests Merriam Webster.)
Besides reflecting the zeitgeist, the other criterion to be selected the word of the year, according to Oxford Dictionaries, is to exhibit ‘lasting potential as a word of cultural significance.’ If past performance is any indication, however, most of the slang words won’t have any staying power. Just as the floss was a short-lived fad, we are unlikely to remember whose BDE hung the lowest by this time next year. With an ever-quickening news cycle and decreasing attention spans exacerbated by social media, how long can our overtaxed minds be expected to hold onto laurel vs. yanny (‘laurel’ made its way onto Merriam Webster’s shortlist this year) or Trump’s mysterious Twitter use of ‘covfefe’? I don’t recall hearing Oxford’s 2017 winner –‘youthquake’ – a single time this year. Ditto the bulk of last year’s shortlist: ‘Milkshake Duck’ anyone? ‘Gorpcore’? Only ‘white fragility’ – ‘discomfort and defensiveness’ on the part of white folk when confronted with information about inequality – still seems pertinent to the global conversation, as its continued citations per Google Trends confirms.
As for my personal favourite for 2018, I hesitated to choose another of the Scrabble Dictionary’s new additions – the ever-useful two-lettered ‘ew’, used to express disgust. While seriously disgusted about the events of the year, my vote goes to ‘fuckery’, alongside its clumsier cousin ‘clusterfuckery’. ‘Fuckery’ was adeptly applied by actress Ell Potter this November, in a tweet commenting that a sign-language interpreter signing the Brexit Agreement on BBC News was ‘perfectly conveying the perplexing fuckery of this situation’ (the interpreter’s facial expressions implying, basically, ‘ew’).
‘Fuckery’ (‘fuck’ + -ery ; or ‘fuck’ + treachery) – nestled in the dictionary between ‘fuckerware party’ and ‘fuckfest’ – originally meant brothel, with usage recorded from the beginning of the Twentieth Century. According to the OED, ‘the suffix –ery denotes “a place where an indicated article or service may be purchased or procured,”’ notes slang expert Jonathon Green in Getting Off at Gateshead. In The F-Word, Jesse Sheidlower traces the emergence of a second meaning, ‘sexual activity’, to the 1960s (e.g. ‘illicit fuckery’). While its usage for brothel has since disappeared, a third meaning of ‘despicable behaviour’ or ‘treachery’ remains in use. According to Sheidlower, the first recorded usage of the modern meaning was in Stephen King’s 1978 novel The Stand: ‘That was an act of pure human fuckery.’ In her 2006 track ‘Me & Mr. Jones’, Amy Winehouse crooned two age-old questions about relationships (before the advent of orbiting, even): ‘What kind of fuckery is this?” and ‘What kind of fuckery are we?’
The sense of treachery implicit in the f-word goes back to its origins. An etymological refresher: ‘fuck’ is not an acronym – ‘Fornication Under the Consent of the King’ or otherwise – as is sometimes believed. Of Germanic origin, it is related to words in several other Germanic languages, ‘that have sexual meanings as well as meanings such as “to strike” or “to move back and forth”,’ explains Sheidlower, ‘and often the figurative sense “to cheat”. English examples of this family – all found later than fuck – are fiddle, fidget, flit, flip, flicker, and frig.’
The noun ‘clusterfuck’ originally meant orgy, but began to be used about the Vietnam War to refer to ‘a confused undertaking or situation; mess; (also) a disorganized group of individuals’ (copulating or not). Its usage as a verb for both meanings (i.e. to participate in an orgy or to behave in a disorganized manner) would follow. Today, Urban Dictionary defines ‘clusterfuckery’ as ‘a mess of confusion, disorganization, bungling or incompetence,’ which – in addition to its satisfying combination of consonants – seems an accurate characterisation of 2018 on both sides of the Atlantic.
Standing on the cusp of 2019, let’s cross our fingers that ‘Frexit’, ‘Italeave’ or any other portmanteau words be deployed to reflect new instability on the continent; that we observe a substantial drop in the usage of the ‘thoughts and prayers’ that feature on social media with such predictability after mass shootings; that real action to address climate change supplants ‘slacktivism’; and that ‘justice’ – in the truest sense of the word – is served. Further ahead, I’m rooting for another of the newly minted Scrabble words, ‘beatdown’ (an emphatic, overwhelming defeat), to bring it home in 2020.