The Word on the Street

 Courtany Schick raises a sign made at The Tree House in anticipation of a political march in early 2017.

Courtany Schick raises a sign made at The Tree House in anticipation of a political march in early 2017.

Oxford Dictionaries has chosen its international Word of the Year for 2017: “youthquake”, a term coined by former Vogue Editor Diana Vreeland in the 1960s to mean “significant cultural, political or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.” As covered this week in the New York Times, ‘Youthquake’ Is Oxford’s Word of the Year. Sorry, Broflake., Katherine Connor Martin, the head of Oxford’s new words program, noted of the choice: “It originally referred to changes in fashion caused by baby boomers coming of age. Now, we’re seeing it emerge in an electoral politics context, as millennials displace the baby boomers.”

Although this may be the first time you’re hearing of it, the frequency of “youthquake” has surged fourfold this year, gaining prominence in the UK after young people rocked the vote against the Conservative Party in June. The movement it represents then traveled abroad to invigorate the political shifts happening in New Zealand, Australia, the United States and beyond. While the term itself may not have been spoken often on the streets we’ve marched, youth around the world have increasingly showed up with their bodies, signs and sights set on a seismic disturbance of societal proportions.

The ‘Me Too’ movement took 2017 by storm (more than a decade after the campaign was launched by Tarana Burke, the founder of the non-profit Just Be Inc.), setting in motion a cultural upheaval that has shaken old and young alike. This disruptive phenomenon has grown organically, as youth more than ever questioned what “feminism” and “complicit,” Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com’s choices for their Word of the Year, mean to and for them.

As Oxford Dictionaries President Casper Grathwohl remarked in a blog post on the selection of their Word of the Year, “Lexicographers have long understood that the words we surround ourselves with can offer an insightful perspective into the societies we live in, and the people we think we are. Our choice of language illuminates our preoccupations, with more transparency than we’d often prefer.”

Words have tremendous power. They embody meaning, identity…and they catalyze movements. They are literally world-changing. Dictionaries often opt towards providing prescriptive and denotative meaning, an explicit definition as it's long been used. By contrast, young people, who invent words nearly as frequently as they create hashtags, tend to communicate descriptively and connotatively, describing without regard to historical meaning, but rather to construct meaning anew. Despite beginning as a tremor, connotative language often speaks more truthfully to our cultural heartbeat than what appears on the surface. Therein lies its power.

Just as the seasons progress, language evolves with the fabric of society, which, like the plates of the Earth, is constantly shifting. Come rain or shine, what stories are we telling ourselves? What’s your Word of the Year?

Word.

Courtany Schick