It’s a very telling and sad symptom of our current situation that toxic was such a prominent word during 2018.
Every age in history can be broadly defined by the overarching concerns of the people living at the time. The Middle Ages were predominantly preoccupied with God, whereas the modern period (roughly from the 15th to the 19th century) was concerned with art and reason. During the 20th century, it was all about scientific progress, devastating wars, and weapons, and the angst brought about by the absurdity of the human condition (better expressed in the writings of authors like Sartre and Camus). As cultural wars wage on and civilization faces horrors that threaten extinction, we’ve moved beyond the fears of our predecessors to harbor fears and indignations of our own. And our language shows it.
Word of the Year
So, it’s no surprise that Oxford Dictionaries, part of the Oxford University Press run by the University of Oxford, annually takes the time to select a word that defines the year’s attitudes, dispositions, and overall spirit. As they say on their website,
“The Oxford 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.”
In order to select a word, Oxford Dictionaries takes into account both the number of times the word has been looked for in the dictionary and how often it’s been used in several contexts. During 2018, there was a 45% rise on searches for the word toxic, and that tells us something.
A toxic year for a toxic world
Toxic. An adjective. It means ‘poisoned,’ or ‘imbued with poison.’ It comes from the Latin toxicus, which in turn comes from toxicum, meaning ‘poison.’ Yeah, it’s a bad word. To describe bad things.
Yet, unfortunate as it may seem, toxic is a truly apt term to describe the social and political atmosphere of 2018. The many ways in which we use the word grants it a privileged spot, as it reaches the most distressful corners of our anguished minds. From feminism and social issues to climate change to political assassinations, toxic really manages to succinctly paint today’s world in a single stroke, on pretty much every possible level.
Oxford Dictionaries also listed the top ‘toxic’ collocates, that is, the words most frequently paired with toxic in usage and searches. In order, from most to least frequent, these are:
That means ‘toxic chemical’ was the most searched-for phrase in the dictionary during 2018, followed by ‘toxic masculinity.’ It comes as no surprise that in the wake of Trump’s election as President of the United States, with the associated rise of the far right, and the force of social campaigns such as the #MeToo movement, people would be concerned with toxic masculinity and its effects on society. The searches for this term spiked up especially in the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial hearing for a Supreme Court seat.
Toxic environments, specifically referring to poisonous atmospheres in the workplace or at home, have also been cause for concern. Toxic relationships closely follows, especially when coupled with the idea of masculinity, whose very foundations are being rightly challenged today. It seems we’re becoming more aware of poisonous behaviors—which is good. Or toxic behaviors are on the rise—which would be bad. It’s hard to tell which one it is.
The fact that ‘chemical’ is at the top of the list goes beyond the fact that we are often looking to avoid literally toxic substances. According to Oxford, this term became particularly relevant this year after a Russian intelligence officer and his daughter were poisoned with a nerve agent, shocking the world in the process.
And one of the clearest centers in this chain of year-defining terms is the toxicity surrounding humanity’s role in climate change. As more and more reports pour in, we’re starting to realize the consequences that polluted or toxic air has for our health, which has been a primary cause of concern for our age.
It’s not encouraging to have such a word define a whole year—maybe an entire generation. Hopefully, as our awareness surrounding all these issues grows, we’ll be able to get a better handle on this chaotic situation.
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