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Why Xenophobia Is Dictionary.com’s Word of the Year

The word derived from Greek roots captured the zeitgeist of 2016

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This week, the website Dictionary.com released its 2016 word of the year, and it’s not a very comforting selection. The Oakland-based site chose “xenophobia” as the term that most accurately summed up the spirit of the age.

The online dictionary defines xenophobia as “fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers,” and also notes in its blog that it can “also refer to fear or dislike of customs, dress, and cultures of people with backgrounds different from our own.”

So why did xenophobia take the top spot? Leanne Italie at the Associated Press reports that the site bases its selection on search data as well as the input of in-house experts including lexicographers, marketers and its CEO. Last year and this year the company saw big spikes in people looking up the word. In April 2015, global lookups of the word hit a peak after attacks on foreign workers took place in South Africa. Then, from June 22 to June 24, 2016, the day after the U.K.’s Brexit vote, lookups of the word increased 938 percent. “It has been significant throughout the year,” Dictionary.com lexicographer Jane Solomon tells Italie. “But after the EU referendum, hundreds and hundreds of users were looking up the term every hour.” 

Five days later, lookups surged again when President Obama used the word in a campaign speech against Donald Trump. 

“Xenophobia and other words tied to global news and political rhetoric reflected the worldwide interest in the unfortunate rise of fear of otherness in 2016, making it the clear choice for Word of the Year,” company CEO Liz McMillan says in a press release. “While we can never know the exact reasons why xenophobia trended in our lookups this year, this reflects a desire in our users to understand the significant discourse surrounding global events.”

The word itself, even though it sounds ancient, is relatively new, entering the English language in the late 1800s, reports Italie. It’s a combination of two Greek words, xénos, which means “stranger or guest,” and phóbos, which means “fear or panic.”

Though interest in the word was high all year, Dictionary.com points out that they do not know exactly why people were looking up the word. They may have been looking for a definition, confirming spelling or pronunciation or in order to share the definition with others. “I don’t think most people even know what xenophobia is,” Robert Reich, former labor secretary and public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says in a video about the word of the year. “It’s a word not to be celebrated but to be deeply concerned about.”

Xenophobia is not the only disturbing “word of the year” selected in 2016. Earlier this month, Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as its annual lexigraphical bellwether. It defines that term as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” It says that usage of that term increased by 2,000 percent this year over 2015. It’s a far cry from Oxford’s 2014 selection “vape” and its 2015 word, the “joy” emoji, which is a face laughing so hard it's crying.

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About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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