"Fake news!” He shouts it so often that it’s become meaningless. We’ve learned to tune it out now, the way you do when your toddler bangs their fists on their high chair and yells “toast!” for so long the word has become divorced from the thing they thought they wanted, it’s just turned into a noise that means “give me attention!”
Yet this now-empty phrase, which in his tiny hands has come to mean the exact opposite of what it was intended to mean, has just been declared Word of the Year by Collins Dictionary, which reports a 365% increase in its usage over 2017, ahead of other contenders such as “Corbynmania” (which seems so 2015, but apparently is enjoying a resurgence this year), “Insta” and “gender-fluid”.
It’s not immediately clear how Collins’ lexicographers monitor this increase – is it in the media (the FAKE NEWS media), or social media, or do they dispatch agents to follow us in the street and eavesdrop? If the latter, they must be targeting a very specific demographic; I’m pretty sure no one I know has ever knowingly used “Corbynmania” or “cuffing season” – one of this year’s other shortlisted words, to mean pairing up for the winter – in everyday conversation. Certainly no one except publishers and lifestyle journalists has ever unselfconsciously talked about “hygge” (one of last year’s contenders).
However you look at it, the Word of the Year is a curious concept: the shortlist tends to be made up of neologisms that have nevertheless been in use for long enough to have become common currency outside the community or demographic where they originated, and therefore so ordinary as to be unworthy of remark.
Since language often evolves not in the mainstream but at the edges, among young people or countercultures, by the time these phrases have been rubber-stamped by dictionary officials they already feel dated. It’s a bit like seeing Tom Watson dabbing in the House of Commons two years after all the kids stopped doing it, or the time I said “sick burn” to my son and he looked at me as if I’d pissed myself in public.
The problem with Collins’ Words of the Year is that they are, by definition, supposed to capture the zeitgeist and so don’t necessarily represent enduring additions to the language. In 2014 and 2015 respectively, the winners were “overshare” and “binge-watch” – signs of more innocent times, when our biggest problems were spending too much time in front of screens. Last year’s (“Brexit”, obviously) and this year’s reflect the way recent political turbulence has dominated the general conversation.
The fake news merchant in the White House recently claimed to have invented the phrase – not the most grandiose of his empty boasts, but he can perhaps be credited with appropriating it to mean “facts” or “journalism that is critical of me”. (Incidentally, Collins suggests that the etymology of “fake” may have come from the Italian “facciare”, “to make”, by way of Polari, the slang used by merchant sailors and gay men – no one tell Mike Pence.)
Perhaps, in that context, “fake news” is the most perfectly apt illustration of the slipperiness of language, a testament to an age when those in power can choose, like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, to make a word mean whatever they want it to mean, with an audacity that would have gobsmacked George Orwell. We often hear that enforcers of “political correctness” want to “police” language, but a certain amount of monitoring the way we use words is necessary for the health of equality and democracy, and Collins’ annual quantifying of the way we speak can provide a useful yardstick.
“Language matters,” writes Rebecca Solnit, in her recent essay The Case of the Missing Perpetrator. “It is the truest, highest purpose of language to make things clear and help us see; when words are used to do the opposite you know you’re in trouble and that maybe there’s a cover-up.”
Sharp-eyed readers will of course have observed that “fake news” is not even a word but a phrase, just as many other recent contenders have been abbreviations, portmanteaux and suffixes, suggesting that even the word “word” can mean whatever Collins want it to mean. It can surely only be a matter of time before the Word of the Year is just an emoji. One friend suggested that this year’s should have been “MEN”, followed by the rage and the eye-roll faces. Maybe that will add up in time for next year.