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.)
Norway’s Language Council, the state agency for language policy, along with Gisle Andersen, a professor at the Norwegian School of Economics, went with hverdagsintegrering, which translates to “everyday integration.” The choice was inspired by Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s 2016 New Year’s speech, in which she noted how instability around the world had spurred increased migration to Norway. Solberg recommended advancing integration through small steps—ranging from parents offering their children’s refugee classmates rides to soccer practice, to employers not overlooking applicants with unfamiliar names. (In the months preceding the speech, more than 30,000 asylum-seekers had arrived in Norway, according to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics.)
Each year, in China, an online poll conducted by the National Language Resources Monitoring and Research Center, the Commercial Press, and the People’s Daily Online highlights a handful of trendy words and phrases. 2016’s character of the year was gui, which translates to “rule” or “regulation.” As Haifeng Huang, a professor at UC Merced, explained in an interview, the selection “likely reflects the Chinese state’s increasing control over Chinese society as well as [its] recentralization of power in recent years,” including a massive campaign by Chinese President Xi Jinping to root out corruption from the Communist Party. The word of the year, xiao mubiao, or “small goal,” comes courtesy of China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin. In an interview earlier this year, he offered this piece of advice: “Set a small goal first, for example, earn 100 million yuan to start with!” (100 million yuan is roughly $14 million.) The not especially relatable or helpful guidance was met with plenty of amusement online, where it became shorthand for an impossible goal. But Huang said the expression can also be used somewhat sincerely. For an “optimistic society with decent upward mobility,” he explained, “this phrase may represent a humorous but hopeful take on the future.”
Austria’s vote for its largely ceremonial presidency gave us bundespraesidentenstichwahlwiederholungsverschiebung, which translates to “the delay in the repetition of the presidential run-off.” The word surfaced in a poll by the Research Unit for Austrian German and the Austria Press Agency. The Associated Press breaks down the multi-part and misstep-filled process that the word describes: “A first round in April was followed by a May runoff between the two most popular candidates. This was annulled because of irregularities. A new date set for October was then postponed because of faulty absentee ballots to Dec. 4, when the vote was won by Alexander Van der Bellen.” Austrians ultimately rejected a far-right candidate, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party, which was started by former Nazis in the 1950s. His defeat contrasted with a string of populist upsets in 2016, including the vote for Britain to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. election.
The Australian National Dictionary Center, for its part, recognized the term “democracy sausage,” a “barbecued sausage served on a slice of bread, bought at a polling booth sausage sizzle on election day.” The Australian federal election campaign this year was unusually long by Australian standards, lasting two months. (As Uri Friedman wrote in October, this year’s U.S. presidential election, by one measure, lasted 597 days, or nearly 20 months.) By the end of the campaign, The Washington Post explains, “some Australians seemed more concerned about the quality of the democracy sausages on offer than the candidates. Social media and websites directed voters to the best-catered polling booths in their neighborhoods.” Even the appeal of the democracy sausage and the fine assessed for not voting, as mandated by Australian law, didn’t bring out every eligible Aussie. This year, turnout dropped to an all-time low since voting became a requirement in 1925: a mere 90 percent. (Turnout in the 2016 U.S. election was close to 60 percent.) As the director of the Australian National Dictionary Center, Amanda Laugesen said, “Arguably, the democracy sausage has been one of the best things to come out of a tumultuous year in politics and political campaigning.”
In other words, across borders, continents, and languages, politics and political dysfunction were top of mind this year. It’s enough to make you feel like you’re living through a never-ending bundespraesidentenstichwahlwiederholungsverschiebung.