2018 illuminated with a few choice words

— by Bruce Mason —

It can be difficult keeping up with the pace at which humans are altering Earth’s life-sustaining systems and bringing on a sixth mass extinction. In 2018 the evidence became less circumstantial, more direct.

Against this backdrop, we see injustice, inequity, greed and deceit everywhere. Now, more than ever, we need a clear, common human perspective to counteract our collective death spiral, to help keep our heads above a distracting information tsunami.

It’s therefore little wonder that there’s a lot of interest in the Word of the Year (WOTY). Experts have taken to poring over billions of words, noting those that pop up most often. They choose one that captures “the ethos, mood, or preoccupations” of the past 12 months, a word with the most impact on culture and politics, a word worth a thousand pictures on electronic devices.

In summing up 2018, there are three significant WOTYs that stand out: “toxic,” from Oxford University Press; “single-use”, the choice of Collins Dictionary; and “misinformation,” from dictionary.com. Connecting them provides a snapshot of the year winding down and what’s currently on the minds of our endangered fellow human beings.

The 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s landmark Silent Spring ignited environmentalism by bringing about widespread awareness of nature being deeply compromised by toxic pesticides – especially DDT. Now synonymous with poisonous moral corruption, “toxic” has expanded into a catch-all descriptor for everything from political discourse, to relationships, to the water in Flint, Michigan, and in 2018, men in general. Oxford University Press found a spike in look-ups and a phenomenal rise in the sheer scope of the word’s application. The global #MeToo movement put a spotlight on toxic masculinity, which has truly taken root in the public consciousness and has had people talking in 2018. “Toxic” is one word that will most likely characterize the second decade of the 21st Century.

For their part, Collins Dictionary’s lexicographers monitor a whopping 4.5 billion-word corpus to come up with new and notable words. Their top choice, “single-use”, also saw a four-fold increase in usage, signaling a profound change beyond mere language. Once the epitome of a care-free and convenient lifestyle, “single-use” is now at the centre of a global movement to kick our addiction to disposable products.

“From plastic bags, bottles and straws, to disposable plates and cutlery, we have become more conscious of how our habits and behaviors can impact the environment,” Collins says. As a result, almost half of us now feel embarrassed being spotted with single-use plastic items, and nearly one-third have called others out for using them. Taking a swig from a single-use plastic water bottle is becoming as unacceptable as smoking and can provoke a similar backlash.

An estimated eight million tonnes of plastic is added to the oceans every year. Alarming images of plastic in stomachs of fish and seabirds – and unimaginable accumulations along once-pristine shorelines – is motivating a growing global chorus for hefty taxes and outright bans. If left unchecked, plastic will dwarf life in the oceans by 2050. It’s worth noting that Oxford also tracks words used by children. “Plastic” topped that list for 2018, indicating another sharp rise in awareness and new hope for action.

Common Ground first focused on the WOTY phenomena with “post-truth” in 2016, and featured “complicit” last year – two picks that seem to follow a chilling but logical progression and evolution, especially when coupled with “misinformation,” the 2018 WOTY from dictionary.com.

The recent and rampant explosion and spread of misinformation poses new challenges for navigating contemporary life. It is defined as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.” Too often it is conflated with “disinformation,” but the two aren’t interchangeable. “Disinformation” means “deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda.” The difference comes down to intent.

In early November, fact-checkers from the Washington Post shared their record of the false or misleading claims Donald Trump has made since becoming president. The count was 6,420, an average of about 10 false or misleading claims a day, heard around the world, believed by many, and shared by millions. It has become all too easy to ignore facts that don’t confirm our own world-views and to spread misinformation that does.

The quest to quell misinformation is deeply important. It requires diligence and improved media literacy. This means carefully considering sources of information and committing to reading entire articles, not just headlines, and even fact-checking stories using online sources such as factcheck.org before believing and sharing them.

In many spiritual practices, thought is manifested as word, then deed, before developing into habit and integrating with character. Words of the Year have lasting potential and cultural significance, linking our commonly held thoughts and concerns, bridging the forced divide. It is time to walk the WOTY.

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.

image © Wisconsinart

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