OAKLAND, Calif., Dec. 2, 2019 /PRNewswire/ -- Dictionary.com announced today it has named existential the 2019 Word of the Year. The word has two definitions: the literal "of or relating to existence" and the more philosophical "concerned with the nature of human existence as determined by the individual's freely made choices." Existential encapsulates a theme of threat and crisis reflected not only in the past year's top environmental, sociological, and political stories, but also in lighter moments through popular culture and entertainment, notably in Toy Story 4's spork, Forky.
"The words we saw people looking up in 2019 signal a broader concern about safety, security, and survival, in ways both immediate and far-reaching," said John Kelly, Senior Research Editor at Dictionary.com. "Sustained interest in existential, in our lookup data as well as in the news and culture, reflects this collective grappling. But for all the feeling of doom and gloom this year, the philosophical underpinnings of the word existential invite us to pause, shake off any pessimism or passivity, and ask: What choices do we make in the face of our challenges?"
Existential, as a word and theme, was prominent in discussions around topics that dominated 2019: climate change, gun violence, and democratic institutions. Searches for the word spiked especially after notable figures, such as presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and teenage activist Greta Thunberg, characterized climate change as an existential threat to humanity and the planet—a threat underscored by extreme weather events such as the Amazon fires and Hurricane Dorian. Other words that trended in Dictionary.com's data this year point to environmental concerns, including polar vortex, as do its lexicographical updates to IUCN Red List species extinction risk terms, such as threatened species, vulnerable, and endangered.
Trends around incidents of gun violence, an issue with life-and-death ramifications, reinforced the existential theme. Searches for manifesto, screed, white supremacy, and stochastic terrorism jumped after mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand and El Paso, Texas.
Political words are perennial top searches on Dictionary.com—which in 2019, included the word existential. A major spike in searches for the word occurred in June when former Vice President Joe Biden painted President Donald Trump as an "existential threat" to American values. Other trending words included exonerate and purview, following Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report and testimony, and quid pro quo, amid the impeachment inquiry into President Trump this fall. These searches suggest an interest in democratic institutions during a contentious time, and may also indicate concerns about existential challenges to the status quo on both sides of the aisle.
Other top stories that defined 2019 were framed in the public discourse using existential terms, from the "existential demonstrations" of Hong Kong protests to the "existential crisis" of Brexit in the United Kingdom. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, described Senator Elizabeth Warren's calls to break up Big Tech as an "existential" threat to his company, while one witness described the "existential pang" of seeing the Notre Dame cathedral on fire.
An Existential Zeitgeist
Existential also showed up in lighter stories in the zeitgeist, from the end-of-times comedy Good Omens to the afterlife sitcom The Good Place, signaling ways in which popular culture is using humor to address an existential mood. Another bright spot was Toy Story 4's Forky, the animated spork who struggles to find his life's purpose. Forky undergoes an existential crisis, journeying from seeing himself as just a piece of trash to a toy that brings happiness and comfort to a child.
"Forky's existential crisis resonates with audiences because we all think at one time or another, 'What is my purpose in life?,'" said Josh Cooley, Director, Toy Story 4. "Examining what it means to be alive through the googly eyes of a disposable utensil, used for soup, salad, or maybe chili, has us questioning our purpose beyond what we think we are and what we can be. The food is just the metaphor, but Forky's journey is our journey, and he reminds us not to throw ourselves away!"
Forky, in a surprising but delightful way, highlights the second sense of existential, related to the philosophy of existentialism, which puts front and center the concept of agency, another 2019 lexicographical update. In existential philosophy, agency refers to the power to make meaningful, authentic choices over our own existences as individual beings—and represents the opportunity to turn existential threats into existential choices.
If Existential Didn't Exist...
A word that clearly captures the idea of exercising agency over one's life, and further develops 2019's existential theme, is Dictionary.com's runner-up Word of the Year for 2019: nonbinary, "noting or relating to a person with a gender identity or sexual orientation that does not fit into the male/female or heterosexual/gay divisions."
"The power of agency is at work in another major theme in our dictionary updates and lookups in 2019: inclusivity, especially as it concerns gender identity and sexual orientation," Kelly said. "How people define themselves? Acts of self-identification can be ways people take existential control over their lives. How people use words for others, such as respecting a person's preferred pronouns? Acts of inclusion are examples of how words can affirm their experiences. The word nonbinary suggests a compelling response to the year's theme of threat and crisis."
Searches for nonbinary itself trended throughout the year after several celebrities, including singer Sam Smith and Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness, publicly identified themselves as nonbinary. Dictionary.com also saw jumps in searches for types of sexual orientation—including omnisexual and pansexual—after Bella Thorne discussed their sexuality in the media. Several new additions to Dictionary.com were inclusive of trans and nonbinary people, such as womxn, and the letter X as a gender-neutral and nonbinary marker, as in Latinx.
"As our Word of the Year, existential doesn't just speak to an overarching sentiment of the year evidenced in our data and in the culture," said Jennifer Steeves-Kiss, CEO of Dictionary.com. "Existential can also teach us new ideas and concepts across the many and diverse stages of our lives. It shows how expanding our vocabulary can enrich and empower our lives. The work of Dictionary.com, in this way, is existential."
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