Existential: 2019 word of the year raises concerns for climate change, gun violence, and threats to democracy

Clark Mindock

Climate change, gun violence, the future of democracy around the world, and the plight of an animated character named Forky have all contributed to this year’s word of the year, as named by Dictionary.com: “Existential”.

The word was chosen by the team at Dictionary.com amid several quite alarming top searched words in 2019 — including the chilling term “polar vortex”, the uncertainty of “stochastic terrorism”, and the relief of “exonerate”.

“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, a senior research editor for the site, of the word.

According to a post from Dictonary.com announcing this year’s word, however, the word that rose to the top was existential, which it says “captures a sense of grappling with the survival — literally and figuratively — of our planet, our loved ones, our ways of life.”

“Yep, heavy stuff,” the post continues.

It’s not hard to see those concerns.

In the US, a heavily polarised impeachment inquiry is underway as Washington grapples with the implications of Donald Trump’s attempts to coerce the Ukrainian government to open an investigation into a domestic political rival of his. Coming out of a leading symbol of democracy around the globe, those proceedings present a dangerous threat to that form of governance.

The folks at Dictionary.com also highlight other issues. In a year that has seen numerous mass shootings in the US, New Zealand, and abroad, it is not hard to see the existential threat of firearms to communities across the world.

And, with the attention paid to the young climate activist Greta Thunberg this year — who travelled to the UN this September to plead with world leaders to act on climate change — it is increasingly difficult to ignore the existential threat posed by the climate crisis.

“I have a dream that the people in power, as well as the media, start treating this crisis like the existential emergency it is,” Ms Thunberg said in September during testimony to the United States Congress, an example highlighted by Dictionary.com.

As for the animated character named Forky? Well, that’s a bit more of an entertaining example, coming from the summer blockbuster Toy Story 4. In that film, the googly-eyed spork wrestles with its existence — and whether the useful eating utensil may ever be a true toy.

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