30 November 2016

Dictionary.com sums 2016 up in one word: xenophobia

Dictionary.com has chosen 'xenophobia' as its Word of the Year in keeping with news developments that have resonated deeply in the cultural consciousness over the last 12 months. According to the company, many of the most prominent news stories this year have centred on fear of the 'other' – the Brexit vote, police shootings, Syria's refugee crisis, transsexual rights, and the US presidential race for instance.

The word 'xenophobia', which entered the English language in the late 1800s, finds its roots in two Greek words, xénos meaning 'stranger, guest', and phóbos meaning 'fear, panic'. Dictionary.com users' interest in the themes tied to this term were evident on June 24, 2016, which marked the largest spike in lookups for xenophobia this year; this was the day after the UK voted to leave the European Union, a phenomenon also known as Brexit.

Days after the Brexit vote, the second largest surge in lookups for the term 'xenophobia' came in relation the 2016 US presidential race. On June 29, President Obama gave a speech in which he insisted that Donald Trump's political rhetoric was not an example of populism, but of "nativism or xenophobia". Unsurprisingly, the largest spike in lookups for the term 'populism' in 2016 occurred on June 30 as a result of Obama's speech.

Xenophobia manifested itself in other world events over the past year as well. Immigration policies, especially in regards to Syria's refugee crisis, have been front and centre in the news worldwide. Because Syria is a majority Muslim country, many criticise anti-immigration policies as Islamophobic. Users of Dictionary.com showed interest in the term 'burkini' for the first time ever this past summer, following legislation in France that was ultimately overturned to ban burkinis, the full-coverage swimsuits favoured by many Muslim women.

"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," said Liz McMillan, CEO, Dictionary.com. "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."

"‪Dictionary.com‪ is right to make xenophobia the word of the year, but it is also one of the biggest threats we face," said Robert Reich, Professor at Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy. "It is not a word to be celebrated. It is a sentiment to be fought."