Dictionary.com has a direct line to public consciousness: data about the words looked up by tens of thousands of curious people at any given moment. In 2016, one word that spiked time and again reflected a recurring theme in the year’s news, their editors say: “fear of the other.” And that’s why the outlet’s word of the year is xenophobia.
The word has two definitions on the site, both reflecting the fearful (and often isolationist) sentiments that aired during the Brexit vote, the American election, the debates over what to do with Syrian refugees, racially charged police shootings and even fights over which bathrooms transgender people should be using in public.
The outlet is “right to make xenophobia the word of the year,” Berkeley public-policy professor Robert Reich said in a statement, “but it is also one of the biggest threats we face. It is not a word to be celebrated. It is a sentiment to be fought.”
The selection builds on feelings that hadn’t reached such an incendiary pitch last year, when Dictionary.com chose the word identity to sum up the zeitgeist of 2015. “Over the past year, headlines tied to gender, sexuality and race dominated the news,” the company’s editors wrote in a press release announcing that decision. “In particular, many of the year’s biggest stories focused on the way in which individuals or members of a group are perceived, understood, accepted or shut out.”
Dictionary.com is the second major outlet to make their 2016 selection, following Oxford’s choice to anoint post-truth earlier in November. Still to be announced are words from Merriam-Webster and the American Dialect Society, the organization which sparked the modern tradition of announcing a “word of the year” more than a quarter century ago.