It’s not easy to sum up the past year in a single word, even if you stick to one language.
Take, for example, the competing “word of the year” offerings of various online English-language dictionaries. Merriam-Webster chose “surreal” based on spikes in lookups of the word at different points over the year, including the terrorist attacks in Brussels and Nice, the coup attempt in Turkey, and the U.S. presidential election. Dictionary.com’s entry, picked to “embody a major theme resonating deeply in the cultural consciousness,” was “xenophobia,” a term that saw similar surges in lookups amid persistent “fear of the other.” Cambridge Dictionary’s winner for “the biggest increase in searches” to its website during the past year was “paranoid,” a word that “suggests perhaps a feeling that the institutions that have kept us safe can no longer be trusted, that the world feels more uncertain than it did a year ago.” Oxford Dictionary opted for “post-truth”—defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”—based in part on its increasing frequency of use in 2016.
Elsewhere, though, the words summarizing the past 12 months aren’t as dark. In Japan, for instance, an organization that promotes the use of the country’s kanji writing system selected kin, which means “money” or “gold,” as its kanji character of the year. The choice was based on votes from the public (kin is a crowd favorite, having won the contest twice before in 2000 and 2012). Among the reasons voters listed for backing kin: Japan’s success at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where the country netted 12 gold medals; a scandal surrounding the Tokyo governor’s misuse of public funds; and the U.S. president-elect’s hair color. (The elaborate, golden setting of the first meeting between Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also comes to mind.)