Reflecting election distortions in the United States and the United Kingdom, the Oxford English Dictionary named “post-truth” as its 2016 word of the year. It defined the term as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
The theme was mirrored in Merriam-Webster’s selection of “surreal” — defined as “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream” — as its 2016 word of the year.
Three specific spikes in online searches for “surreal” were tied to internationally intensive stories: The terrorist attacks in Brussels last March; an attempted coup in Turkey last July, and the U.S. campaign that climaxed with November’s election.
Another earthshaking geopolitical event — the U.K. vote to leave the European Union — led Collins Dictionary linguists to list “Brexit” as their 2016 word of the year.
Justifying their votes to leave their continental cousins, many Brits cited economics. But “xenophobia” — Dictionary.com’s 2016 word of the year — undoubtedly was a factor, too.
In fact, in the day after the Brexit upset, Dictionary.com notched a 938 percent surge in searches of “xenophobia.” The second most significant rise was after former President Barack Obama’s speech expressing concern over the use of the term populism to describe then-candidate Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric. In fact, Obama said, it was more an example of “nativism or xenophobia.”
In explaining their choice, Dictionary.com wrote that, “This year, some of the most prominent news stories have centered around fear of the ‘other.’ ”
President Trump seemed to seize upon — and be seized by — this fear when he again claimed that between three to five million unauthorized immigrants voted, robbing him of a popular vote victory to match his Electoral College win.
The president offered no evidence to congressional leaders when he made the claim, and neither did White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who backed his boss despite data debunking the assertion.
It was the second time in the first week of the Trump administration that Spicer has spun demonstrably false claims.
On Jan. 21, without taking a single question, Spicer angrily upbraided the White House press corps about Trump’s insistence that his inauguration crowd was the largest ever despite photographs proving otherwise.
Or so it would seem. And yet the results from a scientific study showed the degree to which some supporters were willing to take Trump at his word despite seeing side-by-side photos of the 2009 Obama inauguration and the 2017 Trump inauguration.
When asked which image went with which inauguration, 41 percent of self-identified Trump supporters gave the wrong answer, compared with 8 percent of self-identified Clinton supporters and 21 percent of nonvoters.
And stunningly, 15 percent of Trump supporters said that the photograph from Trump’s inauguration, which clearly has fewer people, actually had more. As political scientist Brian Schaffner and researcher Samantha Luks wrote in their Washington Post commentary interpreting their research, “the Trump administration already accuses others of producing ‘fake news,’ and instead offers its own (false) ‘alternative facts.’ If a significant portion of Trump supporters is willing to champion obvious fabrications, challenging fabrications with facts will be difficult.”
In naming “fake news” as its 2016 “lie of the year,” Politico described the dynamic as “made-up stuff, masterfully manipulated to look like credible journalistic reports that are easily spread online to large audiences willing to believe the fictions and spread the word.”
“Fake news” describes a specific process, but the term has been co-opted by some disagreeing with discordant information, however truthful. This includes the president, who deployed the term against CNN online and in-person at a news conference.
The “alternative facts” referred to by the pollster and political scientist is the label Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway used to describe Spicer’s remarks. The term, an early contender for 2017’s word of the year, evoked “newspeak” in George Orwell’s “1984,” the dystopian tome that has shot to the top of the bestseller list 68 years after its debut.
“1984” previously cut through the cultural clutter 33 years ago when it was evoked in a superlative Super Bowl spot which depicted a heroic hammer-throwing woman smashing an oversized screen of a “Big Brother”-like character. “On Jan. 24th, Apple Computer will introduce the Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984,’ ” the commercial concluded.
And yet, while the spot was spot-on about the coming computer revolution, on Jan. 24, 2017, there was news of an administration move to curtail public information from federal agencies — particularly ones involved with environmental issues.
Concurrently, a Badlands National Park Service Twitter account was used to tweet scientific data on climate change, causing a social-media sensation that soon grew into a rogue movement of scientists refusing to be silenced.
The original Badlands tweets have since been deleted, but the controversy over veracity has not been erased. If anything, it’s amplifying. Especially after Trump’s White House strategist Stephen Bannon strikingly and stridently invoked “no-speak” when he called the media “the opposition party” and added that “the media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for awhile.”
The terms identified by Politico and various dictionaries needn’t define our times.
Indeed, it would be beneficial to the world if an antonym to these words became the unanimous choice for 2017’s word of the year:
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.