Oxford's word of the year is 'toxic': Are we living in poisonous times, or just complaining more?

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The runners-up are ‘gaslighting’ and ‘incel’, revealing interesting facts about the conversations we have been having this year.

If you have been feeling that the past year was too full of negativity and your social media timelines threw nothing but depressing stuff at you, the Oxford Dictionaries believes you.  

The dictionaries’ Word of the Year for 2018 is “toxic”.  

According to Oxford, the word of the year “is a word or expression that is judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year, and have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance.”

When the “ethos, mood and preoccupations” of an entire year around the world have been poisonousness, we know bure din are truly here.

Oxford says “toxic” won the honour due to the sheer variety of things that people have been feeling are harmful to their health and happiness — air, water, Presidents, partners, celebrities, their fans.

This is toxic. (Photo: PTI/file)

The word ‘toxic’ is derived from the Greek toxikon pharmako —arrows with poisoned tips used by the ancient Greeks.

But the arrows people have been feeling directed at them this year are not merely of outrageous fortune. The nouns that have been most commonly used with ‘toxic’, according to Oxford’s corpus, are depressingly comprehensive — ‘chemical’, ‘masculinity’, ‘substance’, ‘gas’, ‘environment’, ‘relationship’, ‘culture’, ‘waste’.

Some of these might look like chemistry students were dominating the year’s conversations, but the reality is scarier.

“Toxic chemical’ became a common word because of the nerve poisoning of a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia, in the UK in March this year.        

Similarly, ‘toxic waste’,’ toxic gas’, ‘toxic substance’, etc., became popular as air and water pollution spiked dangerously across the world, including — very noticeably — in India.

However, a “toxic environment” is not always used in the conversation of ecology. The term was used to define workplaces to friends to homes that affected people’s self-worth and peace of mind negatively.

So is this.  (Photo: AP)

So did things get especially bad this year, or did people just complain more?

While the very ubiquity of the term can be used to dismiss its seriousness — people have just latched onto a new word and are throwing it around everywhere — the fact that they chose “toxic” to latch onto is indicative of the bleakness, and hope, of the times we live in.

On the one hand, while the politics and rhetoric of hate, exclusion and fear is gaining ground worldwide, giving people more reason to feel toxicity, more minorities are finding the voice to speak out, thus articulating that toxicity.  

The words that lost out to ‘toxic’ — ‘gaslighting’ and ‘incel’— are even more telling, and point to the same trend.

While ‘gaslighting’ means to “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity”, ‘incel’ is short for ‘involuntary celibate’ — straight men who can’t get women to sleep with them and hence resent humanity, especially women.

The term shot to prominence after a man was arrested for killing 10 people in Toronto this year, having ploughed his car into a crowd of pedestrians. When he talked about an ‘incel rebellion’ on social media, the term got wider recognition.

This shows that, at least according to Oxford, relationships dominated conversations over the past year.

While most of these conversations seem to focus around negative aspects of gender interactions, the fact that these issues are being recognised for what they are — by the usage of special, specific terms — and talked about, is hopefully one step towards their greater understanding, and resolutions.    

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