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Word of the Year

We all have our favourite books, but what about favourite words?

Around this time every year, publishers of the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary name their word of the year. Their 2022 choice is “gaslighting”.

For those of you who don’t know, gaslighting is “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s own advantage.” In 2022 Merriam-Webster have logged a 1,740% rise in lookups for the word, and we’ve seen many high-profile examples that directly affect our lives. One UK Prime Minister was forced to resign after persistently misleading Parliament and the public. Another lasted just seven weeks in the job, largely because she fooled herself and the people who elected her into thinking 2 + 2 = 22 was a sound basis for an economic strategy. Maybe Liz Truss should reinvent herself as a bingo caller?

One person who did successfully reinvent himself was Matt Hancock, the former Health Secretary whose management of the COVID pandemic had tragic consequences. Three weeks of apologising and eating bugs on “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here” made him oddly popular with many viewers. Sales of “Pandemic Diaries” Hancock’s book on the COVID crisis, released immediately after his jungle adventure, were boosted, allowing more people to sample his wisdom. Among other pearls, Hancock shares that, despite having no medical or scientific training, he was the first person to realise that COVID was passed on without symptoms but his efforts to stop the spread of the disease were thwarted by a global scientific consensus that he alone realised was wrong. Err…. okay. He also claims, without evidence, that Britain’s doctors tried to divert people from vaccine centres into their own practices so they could claim payment for delivering vaccinations. And he tells us that care home staff who contracted the virus during lockdown were to blame for bringing it into homes and fatally infecting residents.

Some of us remember things differently. Some of us remember the many care workers who isolated themselves from their families, stayed in their places of work and slept on chairs and floors to protect the people in their care. Some of us remember the selfless courage of NHS workers who laboured tirelessly while wearing bin bags in place of the personal protective equipment they should have been provided with as standard. Some of us will be filled with admiration and gratitude for their sacrifice until the day we die, and we don’t appreciate self-serving attempts to rewrite history.

“Gaslighting” captures the zeitgeist for 2022 and Merriam-Webster have a good track record of keeping their fingers on the pulse. In 2010, when cuts in public spending began to bite under a new government, their choice for word of the year was “austerity”. In 2016, when a sociopathic game show host was elected President of the United States, they went with “surreal”. In 2020, when Matt Hancock struggled heroically to save us from COVID-19, the word was “pandemic”.

But should language exist only to apply labels, or should we expect something more?

Around the world we see daily evidence of language building bridges. Translators and interpreters help companies develop new business relationships in markets that would otherwise remain out of reach. China, for example has a middle-class numbering over 400 million. That’s more than the entire populations of Britain and the USA combined. Chinese consumers are affluent and discerning, and they expect to be communicated with in their native language. Use the right words and you can get their attention and their money.

Language builds bridges in other vital ways, of course. Britain may have chosen to leave the European Union but there are many EU initiatives to be admired. One of the most valuable is the neighbour languages programme, which teaches children to communicate with those across their nearest border.

The United Nations has followed a similar path in Africa, with people living near the border of Somalia and Ethiopia, for example, encouraged to learn the language of those close by, turning hostile border disputes into conversations between neighbours. Words can mend fences. Words can stop wars.

In 2022 there’ve been times of hardship and words to describe them. Spiralling food and fuel costs have left many of us struggling to heat our homes and feed our families. There’s no magic wand we can wave to solve these problems, but if we face them together we’ll stand a far better chance. And it’s a good idea to remember what others are facing and how they’re facing it.

Approximately 5 million Ukrainians have been documented as refugees since their country was invaded by Russia in February, with over 8 million made homeless and internally displaced. And their winters are far colder than ours. Through all of this, whether they have a roof over their heads or only the sound of shelling and gunfire, the Ukrainian people are still standing and still fighting. Their political leaders are putting themselves in harm’s way, inspiring and uniting communities, and they’re not trying to gaslight anyone.

Language can amuse us by reflecting the fad of a moment, and it can annoy us by giving a label to things we’d rather forget. And it can elevate us by capturing the spirit of people of courage and character. Whatever we’re facing this winter, we’ll get through it together, and we’ll remember that some people are facing far worse.

The word of the year is one that many of you might not be familiar with, but our Ukrainian friends know it very well: громада.

Or, as we say in English, community.


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