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5 words that explain 2016

Girl yelling against red background Chad Baker/Ryan McVay
Tanya Pai heads the standards team at Vox, focusing on copy editing, fact-checking, inclusive language and sourcing, and newsroom standards and ethics issues. She’s also a founder of Language, Please, a free resource for journalists and storytellers focused on thoughtful language use.

We’ve somehow made it to the end of 2016 without spontaneously bursting into flame (at least literally speaking). Here at Vox Culture we’ve spent the past several days discussing the year’s best TV shows, TV episodes, movies, novels, new comic books, older comic books, performances, underrated albums, and more — and now we’re summing up 2016 another way, with five words that shed light on this chaotic, confusing, always-eventful year.


At a September 9 fundraiser, Hillary Clinton coined a phrase to describe a portion of Donald Trump’s supporters: “basket of deplorables.” She said:

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic -- you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.

Reactions were swift and negative, with Republicans rushing to deem Clinton’s statement a gaffe on the level of Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comment in 2012. Though Clinton quickly expressed “regret” for the remarks, the phrase stuck around on both the left and the right. The latter turned it into a rallying cry of sorts, declaring themselves “proud members of the basket of deplorables” and even printing the phrase on apparel.

The former, meanwhile, found it useful as an evocative shorthand for the many varied factions of the extreme right wing who openly and ardently supported Trump: neo-Nazis, misogynists, racists, homophobes, and so on. Even now, as America prepares for President Trump, the phrase has a certain utility: News outlets (including Vox) have devoted many thousands of words to explaining the wide and tangled web of influences that converge in the self-described “alt-right” movement, and though not as widely used, “basket of deplorables” is perhaps both less innocuous-sounding and a more inclusive way to describe its wide-ranging membership.


Clinton fans were granted their own moment to co-opt an opponent’s insult in October, with the final presidential debate. As Clinton answered a question about Social Security and took a swipe at Trump for trying to “get out of” paying taxes via a quirk of the tax code, Trump muttered, “Such a nasty woman,” into his mic.

The comment came during a debate in which Trump had also claimed that “nobody has more respect for women than I do” (and after the release of the now-infamous Access Hollywood tape in which he bragged about committing sexual assault); perhaps unsurprisingly, the phrase began trending on Twitter nearly instantly, and before the night was over, “Nasty Woman” T-shirts were available for sale. Vox’s Liz Plank called the moment the best thing Trump had ever done for Clinton’s campaign, explaining:

How can being the target of a sexist attack help Clinton? It effectively chips away at her likability issue. Many women say they felt lukewarm about her, but last night they had sympathy. It’s really hard not to like someone when you empathize with them.

If Clinton had won the election, we might now be looking back on the moment as a turning point, when formerly pro-Trump women turned against him. Sadly, it only lives on in memes and on T-shirts (along with the “Hillary shimmy” from the same night, which I hope will outlast us all).



It was October 2015 when Bernie Sanders proclaimed to Hillary Clinton during a primary debate that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” Sadly, no end was in sight for the incessant coverage of all things related to Clinton’s much-discussed use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, and to the release of thousands of pages of Democratic National Committee emails by WikiLeaks, revealing everything from Clinton aide John Podesta’s risotto recipe to messages that seemed ripped from the script for Veep.

As Vox’s Jeff Stein has explained, the “Clinton email scandal” is not one scandal — rather, there are several issues that have become tangled together in confusing and sometimes contradictory ways and are now lumped under the umbrella of “Hillary’s emails.” Yet the issue still dominated coverage during the campaign; as Matt Yglesias wrote, “every bit of micro-news that puts the scandal back on cable amounts to reminding people of something bad that Clinton did. In total, network newscasts have, remarkably, dedicated more airtime to coverage of Clinton’s emails than to all policy issues combined.”


That didn’t stop FBI Director James Comey from delivering his own “October surprise,” which returned the whiff of scandal to headlines about Clinton mere days before the election. And most disconcertingly of all, the aftermath of the election brought the conclusion — now shared by 17 separate government intelligence agencies — that Russia was behind the hacks of both the Democratic and Republican national committees, and shared Democrats’ emails with WikiLeaks (which then released them to the press) but kept Republicans’ under wraps with the express purpose of electing the Putin-friendly Trump to the presidency.


In 2015, the Oxford Dictionaries declared its word of the year to be … not a word at all, but instead the “face with tears of joy” emoji. In 2016 it landed on “post-truth,” thanks to a huge spike in interest in the term. As the dictionary explained in a press release:

The term has moved from being relatively new to being widely understood in the course of a year — demonstrating its impact on the national and international consciousness. The concept of post-truth has been simmering for the past decade, but Oxford shows the word spiking in frequency this year in the context of the Brexit referendum in the UK and the presidential election in the US, and becoming associated overwhelmingly with a particular noun, in the phrase post-truth politics.

It’s a fitting word for a year that saw the proliferation of fake news on social media sites like Facebook; the threat of real-life violence based on a false, internet-bred conspiracy theory; and the rise of a presidential candidate who regularly and repeatedly spouted complete lies — and yet managed to win the election anyway.


Another “word of the year,” this time from Merriam-Webster, which makes its annual selection based on searches on its website (one runner-up for 2016: “fascism”). Surreal could describe many of the shocking things that happened on this particular trip around the sun: 2016, after all, brought us Brexit and Harambe the gorilla turned immortal meme; the deaths of several beloved cultural figures; the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and the horrific destruction of Aleppo, the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency, and even the spectacle of a masterful takedown of Taylor Swift by an almost frighteningly media-savvy Kim Kardashian.

But let’s not forget “surreal” can refer to good things, too. Not one but two sports curses were broken in 2016 in dramatic Game 7 wins, with the Cleveland Cavaliers nabbing their first NBA championship and the Chicago Cubs clinching the World Series (against another Cleveland team) for the first time since 1908. Grown men and women came together, smartphones in hand, to chase down imaginary creatures thanks to Pokémon Go, which brought a childhood favorite of many into (virtual) reality. The victorious, charismatic Final Five utterly dominated in women’s gymnastics at the Rio Olympics — in part thanks to whatever sorcery enables Simon Biles to move the way she does.


While 2016 may not have been anyone’s idea of a fun, feel-good time (there’s a reason “dumpster fire” is Mother Jones’s meme of the year), it’s important to remember that things weren’t all terrible. Here’s hoping the next 365 days will contain a little more sunshine.

Correction: Corrected the date of the last Cubs World Series win.