There isn’t a single “word of the year” but there are certainly wordSof the year since various sources choose a word or words that they feel were prominent in the past year.
It was a German Wort des Jahres that started things in 1971. The American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year is the oldest English-language version. They wait until after the end of the calendar year to announce just in case something really catches hold in December.
The dictionary folks at Merriam-Webster picked the nonbinary pronoun “they” and added that meaning to their dictionary because it had a 313% boost in lookups.
Dictionary.com went with “existential.” That word was attached to a variety of usages including climate change, gun violence and Joe Biden’s remarks about President Trump as constituting “an existential threat to America.”
Oxford chose a phrase as its word of the year: “climate emergency,” because they found it to be “100 times as common” this year as it was in 2018.
None of these are new words. All are new usages or new definitions of old words.
Existential is my favorite because it is a word I knew well from courses in philosophy and literature. The first definition in most dictionaries is one of those fairly useless definitions: “of or relating to existence.” Not helpful. It came into English in the late 1600s and in that first sense is used when someone or something’s being/existence—is at stake.
I learned the word existential in a classroom where the discussion was about how human existence was determined by the individual’s freely made choices and it had to do with existentialism. That philosophy is one that affirms our individual ability to make meaningful, authentic choices about our lives. We were reading Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche, Kafka, and Kierkegaard. Heavy stuff. This meaning came into usage in the early 1900s
Dictionary.com says that existential describes “a sense of grappling with the survival — literally and figuratively — of our planet, our loved ones, our ways of life.”
Oxford picked “climate emergency” because it felt that it was “the most written about (kind of) emergency by a huge margin.”
The singular gender-neutral pronoun “they” confuses a lot of people – and bother grammar police. Some sites have claimed that all three of these words of 2019 are centered on Gen Z and Millennials. That latter group identifies as LGBTQ at the highest rate in history, and the Gen Z that follow will likely continue the trend.
Time magazine’s Person of the Year, Greta Thunberg, is a Gen Z who has taken on climate change more than the older generations. For her and her comrades, it’s more of a climate emergency now than mere climate change. And Gen Z youth, especially those who have been involved in gun violence in their own schools, have led the way on that issue.
I’ll go with “existential” for 2019 because it covers a number of issues including climate and guns. It is the threat that a lot of us feel every day to our very existence.
I ignore the lists of the “most searched” words because, besides trivial pop culture topics, the others tend to be a topic of the day or week (like polar vortex, stochastic terrorism or exonerate) in the same way that a story in the media is the top news for a week or two and then we don’t hear any followup on it ever again.
Don’t forget that other countries and languages also have their word of the year. For example, in Australian English for 2019, cancel culture and robodebt get the top prizes.
And if we look back at the American Dialect Society’s words from year’s past, we have a little time capsule of where we were and how much change or lack of change there has been: 2015, Singular they (as a gender-neutral pronoun, especially for non-binary gender identities). 2016, dumpster fire (an exceedingly disastrous or chaotic situation). 2017, fake news (disinformation or falsehoods presented as real news or actual news that is claimed to be untrue). 2018, tender age shelter (a euphemism for facilities in which children of illegal immigrants are detained by government officials).
The word “mantra” comes from ancient Sanskrit combining man meaning mind and tra meaning instrument, with the idea being that it is an instrument of the mind. A mantra is a word or phrase in Sanskrit that you repeat over and over, either aloud or silently.
I first learned about it when I first encountered meditation because the repetition of a mantra quiets the mind and should bring peace and clarity.
“Om” is probably the most well know Sanskrit Mantra. Om is believed to be the sound of creation. It is the first, original vibration. Positive mantras create a powerful sound vibration that aligns the mind, body and spirit to divine energy.
Using mantras is a type of meditation and chanting one is treated like meditation – seated in a quiet place where you will not be disturbed.
In transcendental meditation, a mantra is considered a personal and secret thing, but now you can find mantras online and even YouTube videos of how to pronounce the ancient Sanskrit words.
I was taught to chant it out loud seven times, then again seven times but softly, and then silently in my head seven more times or for as long as needed silently until the vibration of the sound connects in some way to your subconscious mind.
I learned much later that in India tradition, the mantra is repeated 108 times, using a string of 108 Mala beads to help you keep count. This reminded me of the praying of the rosary and other props used to focus meditation or prayer.
So, are mantras really prayers? I think they can be, but they do not have to have any connection to a religious sect or practice. Mantras, when used properly, are said to direct your life force energy (Prana) through the body and your energy centers. That is why some practitioners credit them with deep healing.
It is easy to make fun of mantras, as Woody Allen did in Annie Hall. (Do you recognize the rather distraught young man in the clip above who has forgotten his mantra? It’s Jeff Goldblum in a bit part back in 1977.)
When I first was given a mantra by some “Buddhists” I met my freshman year of college, I was told that I could request anything and by chanting my mantra regularly my wish would be fulfilled. “Could I get a new guitar?” I asked. “Absolutely,” was the reply.
That is not what mantras are about.
I question the powers attached to an individual mantra. For example, Om Namah Shivaya is the “great redeeming mantra” and is supposed to help us to call on our higher self, overcome our ego, aid in purification and space cleansing, physical and mental healing and increase self-esteem and confidence. That seems like a lot to ask of six syllables.
Om Shanti translates as “peace” and is a popular mantra. Om Namah Shivaya is also a well known Hindu mantra and the most important mantra in Shaivism. It means “O salutations to the auspicious one!” or “adoration to Lord Shiva.”
You don’t have to use a Sanskrit mantra. There are other words and phrases in English or any language you can use. J.D. Salinger introduced me to the Jesus Prayer which is used as a mantra. That short prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Salinger is most famous for The Catcher In The Rye, but after the fame of that book sent him off to a hermit’s life in Cornish, New Hampshire, he wrote Franny and Zooey. That book introduced me – and I’m sure many others – to the Jesus Prayer.
In a literary sense, the story of the siblings Franny and Zooey, the two youngest members of the Glass family which was a frequent focus of Salinger’s writing, may be a reaction to the success of Catcher in the Rye.
Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Catcher, is full of teenage existential angst. It puts him into a mental hospital. Salinger himself escaped the fame train that his first book put him on and went into isolation and read a lot about philosophy and spirituality.
Franny and Zooey is a modern American take on the path from existential depression to spiritual illumination. Franny explains the method of the Jesus Prayer in this way:
“… if you keep saying that prayer over and over again, you only have to just do it with your lips at first – then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active. Something happens after a while. I don’t know what but something happens, the words get synchronized with the person’s heart-beats, and then you’re actually praying without ceasing. The prayer has one aim, and one aim only. To endow the person who says it with Christ-Consciousness.”
Positive mantras should be words that resonate for you. You could just use a word such as “peace” as your mantra. People will create their own mantra. Someone coming out of a broken relationship or leaving a job might say “I will find a better life.” The mantra can be about your intention.
More than a few self-proclaimed modern”gurus” have built a career (and fortune) by getting people to use mantras (whether they use that word or not) and to repeat over and over positive phrases such as “I am strong.”
In Franny and Zooey, Salinger also has a character warn us about using a mantra.
“You can say the Jesus Prayer from now till doomsday, but if you don’t realize that the only thing that counts in the religious life is detachment, I don’t see how you ever move an inch. Detachment, buddy, and only detachment. Desirelessness. ‘Cessations from all hankerings.’ It’s this business of desiring, if you want to know the goddamn truth, that makes an actor in the first place. Why’re you making me tell you things you already know? Somewhere along the line – in one damn incarnation or another, if you like – you not only had a hankering to be an actor or an actress but to be a good one. You’re stuck with it now. You can’t just walk out on the results of your own hankerings. Cause and effect, buddy, cause and effect. The only thing you can do now, the only religious thing you can do, is act. Act for God, if you want to – be God’s actress, if you want to. What could be prettier?” source
I identified as a college student with Franny Glass. She is a 20-year-old English major. Her story takes place when she visits her boyfriend for a college football weekend at his school. She is already tiring of the phoniness of college life and the egotism of faculty and students – including her boyfriend.
“I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting.’
Her existential crisis is at a point where it is making her physically sick. Her boyfriend doesn’t understand the little book, The Way of a Pilgrim, she has borrowed from the college library that is in her handbag.
At the end of her story, she explains that the prayer means to her that ‘You get to see God. Something happens in some absolutely nonphysical part of the heart—where the Hindus say that Atman resides…”
She is nauseous, sweating and has just confessed out loud what she is feeling. Franny faints on the way to the bathroom. “Alone, Franny lay quite still, looking up at the ceiling. Her lips began to move, forming soundless words, and they continued to move.”
Salinger was writing Catcher fresh from getting out of WWII and surrounded by Beat Generation poets and novelists and their fascination with Eastern philosophies. We know that Salinger also was interested in Eastern religious philosophy such as Zen Buddhism and Hindu Advaita Vedanta, but also Christian spirituality.
The nineteenth-century Russian peasant who wrote The Way of a Pilgrim tells the story of his journey as a mendicant traveller across Russia, He repeats the Jesus Prayer uninterruptedly, as a type of mantra.
It’s too much to say that the two stories of Franny and Zooey are full stories of pilgrims or hero journeys or even someone in crisis finding enlightenment. And it’s too much to say that chanting a mantra will solve all your problems.
Nichiren was a 13th-century Buddhist monk who saw as the essence of Buddhism the belief that we have within us at each moment the ability to overcome any problem or difficulty that we may encounter in life. He believed we have the ability to transform any suffering through a power we possess by being connected to a fundamental law.principle that underlies the workings of all life and the universe.
The name he gave to this principle was “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.” This was the first mantra I was given in that college encounter with budding Buddhists. I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and I used in meditations for about a year, but I left it.
I rediscovered it (though it had been flashing in my brain on and off for the rest of my life) only a few years ago. I read an article explaining the meaning of the words and then realized that part of what appealed to me about the mantra was that I did not know what the words meant. The mystery of the words was part of my attraction to them.
The past year I have used this mantra as a way to clear my mind of thoughts, especially when I am trying to get to sleep. Luckily, I have forgotten the meaning of the words so that the chanting carries no other meaning, no associations that are an opportunity to distraction. The silent chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo pushes other thoughts away. An empty mind can be a wonderful thing.