Stephanie Smith: Word is ... we’re talking about fake news and feminism

Elizabeth Moss in this year's adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale. Online searches for the work "feminism" increased after it aired.
Elizabeth Moss in this year's adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale. Online searches for the work "feminism" increased after it aired.
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And the word of the year is … “youthquake”. Hardly anyone has heard of it, but Oxford Dictionaries says use of the word – meaning young people driving political change – grew 500 per cent in everyday speech in 2017, peaking after a better-than-expected election turnout for Labour by millennial voters.

Maybe it’s not so surprising. Young people have much to quake about, with many feeling they have been mugged by older people of their pensions, their freedom of movement and their ability to own their home. If “youthquake” as WoTY reflects a gathering rebellion, perhaps it’s time.

But it’s not the only WoTY contender. Collins offers two words – “fake news”, described as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”. Donald Trump declared he himself had come up with the term. This is fake news itself as it dates back to at least the 19th century, according to Merriam-Webster, whose own WoTY is “feminism”. Searches for this increased during TV shows and films with strong feminist themes, including The Handmaid’s Tale.

Before celebrating a new dawn of equality, consider that Dictionary.com has an intriguing WoTY contender in “complicit”, which has increased 300 per cent this year in online searches, partly to do with Russian election interference, although the first spike came in March after Saturday Night Live aired a sketch with Scarlett Johansson as Ivanka Trump promoting a fake fragrance called ‘Complicit’.

Latterly, it has been searched regarding the sexual harassment allegations against powerful men, including film mogul Harvey Weinstein. This suggests online interest in who knew about casting couches and sexual abuse, concerns that chiefly implicate industry figureheads, but also, and more pruriently, female actors. Which leading ladies submitted and stayed silent?

The WoTY contenders tell us what English speakers have been talking and thinking about. Interest in young people engaging with politics can only be a good thing. “Fake news” points to a continuing undermining of trust in news reporting – not a good thing – while it’s hard not to take from “complicit” the message that some of us prefer to blame those who have been exploited and abused, rather than the exploiters themselves.

Other words on the lists include “gender fluid”; “fidget spinner”; “broflake” (man upset by liberal attitudes), and “unicorn” (adding rainbow colours to food ). Optimistic, unsettling, or wonderfully silly – this is how we live and think now.

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