There isn’t a single “word of the year” but there are certainly wordS of 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).