The news narrative in 2017 was so extraordinary that it can’t be captured in a word.
So how about four of them?
Words of the year from four dictionaries, as well as PolitFact’s “Lie of the year,” all reflected the news of 2017 and projected a 2018 that looks to be just as turbulent.
Like nearly everything in these politically polarized times, each choice is linguistically laden with partisan interpretation. Take dictionary.com’s choice of “complicit,” which it defines as “choosing to be involved in a questionable act, especially with others; having partnership or involvement in wrongdoing.”
The word was widespread in its usage and utility — particularly in investigating how Harvey Weinstein’s coterie cauterized him from cascading allegations of sexual harassment. Beyond that seminal trigger of the #MeToo movement there were three specific spikes in lookups: on the Sunday after the “Saturday Night Live” spoof spot for Ivanka Trump’s “Complicit Perfume” (“the fragrance for the woman who could stop all this, but won’t”); Ivanka’s response in an interview with “CBS This Morning”; and when U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who wrote “Conscience of a Conservative,” announced his retirement by declaring “I won’t be complicit.”
The question of complicity is central to congressional and special counsel probes of Russia’s role in the 2016 election. The extent, if any, of the Trump campaign’s complicity is unknown. What is certain, according to a consensus intelligence report, is that Moscow meddled in America’s democracy.
Yet there are still high-level denials that this even happened, including from the person the report states was the intended beneficiary: President Donald Trump.
PolitiFact belied this line of thinking by naming the claim that “Russian interference is a ‘made-up story’ ” its 2017 “Lie of the Year,” which is like a word of the year, but with a forked tongue.
“Trump continually asserts that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election is fake news, a hoax or a made-up story, even though there is widespread, bipartisan evidence to the contrary,” PolitiFact concluded.
“Fake news” itself is Collins Dictionary’s word(s) of the year, which it defines as “false, often sensational information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.”
Fake news is a real thing and really dangerous to democracies — especially when it’s disseminated from Russian operatives attempting to discredit Western institutions and individuals, including, allegedly, Hillary Clinton.
But to Trump, the term has become a catchall for all that is thrown at him, including nagging allegations about some kind of collusion with Russia during the campaign, which Trump denied 16 times in a 30-minute interview published in Friday’s New York Times.
At least among his political base, Trump’s baseless characterization of well-sourced journalism may be working. Research commissioned by the Poynter Institute indicates that “Trump’s frequent attacks on journalists and threats to press freedom have widened a stark, partisan divide in attitudes toward the media.”
The political implications don’t stop, but start, at the water’s edge.
“ ‘Fake News,’ Trump’s Obsession, Is Now a Cudgel for Strongmen,” read a recent New York Times headline on a story detailing dictators’ adaptation of Trump’s famous phrase.
For example, Syrian President Bashar Assad dodged questions on his horrific human rights record by stating that “we are living in a fake-news era.” And the foreign ministry of Myanmar — site of ethnic cleansing against the Muslim-minority Rohingya — now uses a big red “FAKE” stamp on unfavorable stories. Other autocrats automatically invoke the phrase, too.
Two other words were key to encapsulating 2017 but may be even more consequential in 2018, particularly if they’re combined.
The august Oxford Dictionaries chose “youthquake” as its word of the year. The phenomenon, defined as “a significant cultural, political and social change arising from the actions or influence of young people,” manifested itself in many forms this year, especially in Britain, where youth rallied around the sexagenarian leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. “Youthquake” lookups surged fivefold last year, and Labour leapt in the election, too.
On this side of the pond, younger voters were also a crucial coalition component to Democratic victories in Virginia and Alabama. So, too, were women voters, and if the two cohorts combine again in 2018, Merriam-Webster’s 2017 word of the year, “feminism,” will have profound resonance next year, too.
The spike in lookups for “feminism” started with the Women’s March on Washington (and other cities) in January. The term, defined as “the theory of political, economic, and social equality of the sexes,” surged in interest again when Kellyanne Conway contested that she would not consider herself a feminist. Other inquiry pops came from pop culture itself, including the messages of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and even “Wonder Woman.” And the interest increased recently with the unrivaled unraveling of consequential careers due to allegations of sexual misconduct, an ongoing development that the Associated Press named its top 2017 news story. Time, too, noted the impact by naming “The Silence Breakers: The Voices that Launched a Movement” as its annual “Person of the Year.”
The silence continues to be broken, and beyond the #MeToo movement the next year in general is likely to be loud as a midterm election elevates the issues of complicity, the role of real and rhetorical “fake news,” and the impact of younger and women voters. And if 2017 is any guide, unforeseen events will also shape the narrative — and the words to describe it, too.
But one prediction seems safe: “Tranquility” will not be 2018’s word of the year.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.