With its 2016 word of the year, Dictionary.com has landed on one word to summarize the general mood of much of the world this year: “xenophobia,” the “fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers.”
The dictionary explained its decision:
This year, some of the most prominent news stories have centered around fear of the “other.” Fear is an adaptive part of human evolutionary history and often influences behaviors and perceptions on a subconscious level. However, this particular year saw fear rise to the surface of cultural discourse. Because our users’ interest in this overarching theme emerges so starkly for one specific word in our trending lookup data, xenophobia is Dictionary.com’s 2016 Word of the Year.
The context here is Donald Trump’s election and Brexit, the UK’s vote to pull out of the European Union.
As Zack Beauchamp explained for Vox, both of these massive political events were driven by anti-immigrant sentiment and racist attitudes. Surveys have found, for example, that support for Brexit, Trump, and other far-right politicians closely correlated with support for stricter immigration policies and higher levels of racial resentment.
And both the Trump and Brexit campaigns were keenly aware of this, with Trump warning of “crime,” “drugs,” and “rapists” coming across the US-Mexico border and Brexit supporters warning of Muslim immigrants and terrorism. Trump and Brexit, in other words, played into people’s xenophobia.
But just as notable to this year’s electoral events is Dictionary.com’s 2015 word of the year: “identity.” Here’s how the dictionary website explained that decision last year:
In 2015, Dictionary.com saw a number of themes emerge in the words that gained enough traction to be added to the dictionary along with words that trended in user lookups. The most prominent theme across both of these areas was in the expanding and increasingly fluid nature of conversations about gender and sexuality. Additionally, the theme of racial identity led to some of the most notable headlines and new additions to Dictionary.com this year. Encapsulating the most robust fields of language evolution and user interest this year, Dictionary.com’s 2015 Word of the Year is identity.
The trajectory between 2015’s word and 2016’s is telling: The events of 2016 were in part a backlash to the identity politics of the past several years. Seeing the growth and rising acceptance of immigrants and minority groups, many white people — used to holding the power of the majority — have fallen back on candidates and policies that reject the “other.” This is what Amanda Taub at the New York Times has described as “the crisis of whiteness.”
One telling study, conducted by researchers at UC Santa Barbara and Stanford shortly before the election, found that if people who strongly identified as white were told that nonwhite groups will outnumber white people in 2042, they became more likely to support Trump. That suggests that the explosion of xenophobia in the West is at least in part a reaction to the identity politics enabled by shifting racial demographics, which have threatened the base of power that many white people have benefited from for centuries in the US, UK, and other developed nations.
It’s a strange world in which Dictionary.com’s words of the year can explain the shifting political climate. Then again, if any other word can explain a world in which Trump is to be president, “strange” is a good fit.