We are approaching the end of 2019 at a dizzying rate. This year has been jam-packed with a theme of crises and threats.
From the political, economic, sociological and even environmental aspects, these continue to shape human behaviour and perspectives.
This trend is reflected all year in the news and in popular culture, but interestingly, it has even come up in our language choices.
Popular online word finder Dictionary.com has studied users’ dictionary work this 2019, depicting what words we’ve been looking up and how they coincide with the events happening all around us.
The “word of the year”
Using data from its site, Dictionary.com revealed that the top searches and word trends of the year included polar vortex, stochastic terrorism, exonerate and existential. All these words coincide with the world-changing events that happened this year, which include climate change issues, gun violence, and democratic institutions.
Of those words, existential stood out in particular and was crowned the Word of the Year for 2019 by the experts at Dictionary.com.
“It captures a sense of grappling with the survival—literally and figuratively—of our planet, our loved ones, our ways of life.” – Dictionary.com
Existential is an adjective that has two meanings.
The first is “of or relating to existence.” This existential came into the English language in the late 1600s and is often used when someone or something’s very being or existence is at stake. For example, an existential threat to a species means that its continued existence is in real danger.
In the second sense, existential is “concerned with the nature of human existence as determined by the individual’s freely made choices”.
This version of the word came later on into the English language—by the early 1900s. This existential is related to the philosophy of existentialism, which is all about our individual power and capacity to make meaningful, authentic choices that better our lives.
We are all familiar with the phrase “existential crisis“, which is defined as a psychological episode in which a person ponders and questions the true meaning of their lives, or of their existence.
The Latin verb ex(s)istere is where our words like exist, existence, and existential all come from. It means “to come forth, appear, emerge, arise, be”.
Interestingly, the German name for the philosophical movement, Existentialismus—first recorded in 1919—also served as the basis for our English word existentialism.
Existential, as a word and theme, was the star of the show in many of the fiery back-and-forth world conversations on the current controversial topics of the day. We are looking at climate change, gun violence and democratic institutions. Existential has also made a lighter appearance in pop culture.
Dictionary.com reports that searches for existential went up by 179 percent after US democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called climate change “an existential crisis that impacts not just you and me and our generation but our kids and our grandchildren” in February of this year.
Search volume for existential also went up throughout summer and fall of 2019, because of natural disasters like the fire in the Amazon and Hurricane Dorian hitting the Bahamas. News outlets and organisations referred to these disasters as “existential threats or crises”.
Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg, speaking to the US Congress in September, said, “I have a dream that the people in power, as well as the media, start treating this crisis like the existential emergency it is.”
On June 11, the site experienced heavy footfall after former US Vice President Joe Biden said this about President Donald Trump at an Iowa campaign rally—“I believe that the president is literally an existential threat to America.”
According to Dictionary.com, “one thing’s for sure: Biden’s use of existential sent searches for the word up over 1,000 percent”!
The word existential was present in our conversations about the important events of the year and in the stories that defined 2019.
On Big Tech companies:
“…at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight.” — Mark Zuckerberg, quoted in Digital Trends, October 1.
On the Hong Kong protests:
“What began as protests against an extradition bill has morphed into existential demonstrations about the future of the territory.” — Liam Cochrane and Erin Handley, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, September 5.
On the Notre Dame fire:
“Like many who watched, I felt the existentialist pang of history being eviscerated before my eyes.” — Stuart Richardson, USA Today, April 16.
“There is a very serious crisis in the UK which … isn’t linked to the text of Brexit and even less to the Irish backstop. It’s a much deeper crisis. An existential crisis.” — Michael Barnier, quoted in The Guardian, May 29.
By the way, Dictionary.com also revealed that thanks to an increasing number of searches on the diversity of sexual orientation and inclusion in sociological culture and current events, non-binary was the runner-up to existential for the word of 2019. /TISG