Dictionary.com chooses ‘existential’ as word of the year

Word kept appearing in searches after wildfires, Hurricane Dorian, and mass shootings

This Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, photo shows the word “existential” in a dictionary in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

This Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, photo shows the word “existential” in a dictionary in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

Climate change, gun violence, the very nature of democracy and an angsty little movie star called Forky helped propel “existential” to Dictionary.com’s word of the year.

The choice reflects months of high-stakes threats and crises, real and pondered, across the news, the world and throughout 2019.

“In our data, it speaks to this sense of grappling with our survival, both literally and figuratively, that defined so much of the discourse,” said John Kelly, senior research editor for the site.

The word earned top-of-mind awareness in sustained searches at Dictionary.com in the aftermath of wildfires and Hurricane Dorian, and mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso, Texas. It also reared itself in presidential politics and pop culture, including Forky the white plastic spork who was the breakout star of “Toy Story 4.”

The soiled utensil is convinced his destiny is in the trash, until he embraces his purpose as a treasured toy of kindergartener Bonnie.

“Forky underscores how this sense of grappling can also inspire us to ask big questions about who we are, about our purpose,” Kelly told The Associated Press.

Oxford Dictionaries picked “climate emergency” as its word of the year, noting usage evidence that reflects the “ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year,” the company said in a statement.

Dictionary.com crunches lookup and other data to decide which word to anoint each year. The site has been picking a word of the year since 2010.

Among search spikes for “existential” were those that occurred after both Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders and 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg characterized climate change as an “existential” crisis, Kelly said.

Another spike occurred when former Vice-President Joe Biden, also vying for the Democratic presidential nod, painted President Donald Trump as an “existential threat” to decency.

The word dates to 1685, deriving from Late Latin’s “existentialis.” Dictionary.com defines existential as “of or relating to existence” and “of, relating to, or characteristic of philosophical existentialism; concerned with the nature of human existence as determined by the individual’s freely made choices.”

READ MORE: ‘Climate emergency’ is Oxford’s 2019 Word of the Year

Enter Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel and Jean-Paul Sartre, thinkers who moulded and embraced existentialism, among other movements.

Climate, guns and the impeachment crisis for Donald Trump were just a few areas that seemed to frame debate in existential terms. So did the Hong Kong protests, the Notre Dame fire, tensions between the United States and China, and Big Tech’s privacy and fake news problems.

“We started to see existential in the dialogue beginning in January and all the way through the year,” said Jennifer Steeves-Kiss, Dictionary.com’s chief executive officer. “This is a consistent theme that we saw in our data, but it also was leveraged across many different important questions of our time.”

As for Forky, his journey from disposable utensil to handmade toy points to the concept of “agency,” Kelly said, referring to the power to direct our own existences. That, he said, affords us the “opportunity to turn existential threats into existential choices.”

Leanne Italie, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

rcmp
South Surrey neighbours’ calls to police lead to break-and-enter arrest

‘Prime example’ of RCMP and public working together, constable says

Members of the Wheeling 8’s dance group go on a roll at Surrey’s Chuck Bailey Recreation Centre in 2018, during the club’s 45th-anniversary event. If not for the pandemic, such activities could be socially prescribed as part of a new program involving Fraser Health and DiverseCity Community Resources Society. (File photo: Tom Zillich)
‘Social prescriptions’ connect Surrey seniors to activities and other services they need

Fraser Health-backed program involves GP referrals to a Seniors’ Community Connector with DiverseCity

Linda Annis, Aug. 12, 2020. (Photo: Malin Jordan)
Annis wants independent auditor general for Surrey

‘Surrey taxpayers deserve the best possible oversight of the tax dollars they send to city hall,’ Surrey councillor says

SkyTrain’s end of the line, for now, in Whalley. (File photo)
Provincial budget watchers lament no mention of Surrey SkyTrain expansion

But $1.66 billion is earmarked for a second hospital for Surrey, in Cloverdale

The Da Vinci Experience is scheduled to open at Tsawwassen Mills (5000 Canoe Pass Way) in June, with early bird tickets for shows July 15 to Aug. 15 on sale now. (Submitted photo)
‘Immersive art experience’ in Tsawwassen to showcase work of Leonardo Da Vinci

The Da Vinci Experience to open at Tsawwassen Mills in June, early-bird tickets on sale now

A large crowd protested against COVID-19 measures at Sunset Beach in Vancouver on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (Snapchat)
VIDEO: Large, police-patrolled crowds gather at Vancouver beach for COVID protests

Vancouver police said they patrolled the area and monitored all gatherings

Thousands have converged in Whonnock Lake Park to enjoy the nice weather. (Roxanne Hooper/The News)
Thousands enjoy B.C. park with warnings about social distancing

Portable toilets installed in anticipation of nice weather

FILE – The Instagram app is shown on an iPhone in Toronto on Monday, March 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy
Judge acquits B.C. teen boy ‘set up’ on sex assault charge based on Instagram messages

The girl and her friends did not have ‘good intentions’ towards the accused, judge says

Kai Palkeinen recently helped a car stuck on the riverbed near the Big Eddy Bridge. While the car could not be saved, some of the driver’s belongings were. It’s common for vehicles to get stuck in the area due to significantly changing river levels from Revelstoke Dam. (Photo by Kai Palkeinen)
“I just sank a car’: Revelstoke resident tries to save vehicle from the Columbia River

Although it’s not permitted, the riverbed near the city is popular for off roading

Playland at the PNE is set to reopen this May, with COVID-19 health and safety measures approved by the province. (Website/Playland)
VIDEO: Playland at PNE scheduled to reopen this May to masked customers

British Columbians are discouraged from travelling outside of their local health authority to visit the theme park

Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, walks down the street with an acquaintance after leaving B.C. Supreme Court during a lunch break at her extradition hearing, in Vancouver, B.C., Thursday, April 1, 2021. A judge is scheduled to release her decision today on a request to delay the final leg of hearings in Meng Wanzhou’s extradition case. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rich Lam
B.C. judge grants Meng Wanzhou’s request to delay extradition hearings

Lawyers for Canada’s attorney general had argued there is no justification to delay proceedings in the case

B.C. Premier John Horgan announces travel restrictions between the province’s regional health authorities at the legislature, April 19, 2021. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. sees 862 more COVID-19 cases Wednesday, seven deaths

Recreational travel restrictions set to begin Friday

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson is photographed following her budget speech in the legislative assembly at the provincial legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. budget lacks innovative drive, vision during uncertain times, say experts

Finance Minister Selina Robinson’s budget sets out to spend $8.7 billion over three years on infrastructure

Using panels kept cold by water circulating within them, B.C. researchers compared thermal comfort in 60 of the world’s most populous cities, including Toronto. (Lea Ruefenacht)
B.C. researchers use air conditioning to combat spread of COVID particles

Dr. Adam Rysanek and his team have proven a new worthwhile system – a mixture of cooling panels and natural ventilation

Most Read