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What if India chose a Word of the Year?

An exercise to find the Word of the Year in a country as diverse as India would be a sort of crowd-sourced version of unity in diversity

Terms like 'fake news' easily cross cultural boundaries. Image via AFP

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Trying to sum up the ethos of a year in a word is never easy. But dictionaries around the world try their level best each year. This year’s anointed words are out. Oxford English Dictionary has chosen “goblin mode” for self indulgent slovenly behaviour with “Metaverse” coming in as runner-up. Merriam-Webster chose “gaslighting” after that showed 1,740% rise in website searches in 2022.

The 2021 Oxford word of the year was “vax”. The 2020 Collins world of the year was “lockdown”. OED said 2020 was so unprecedented, no one word could capture it but the American Dialect Society chose Covid, a word that spanned a cultural spectrum from Covid vaccines to Covid hair to Covidiot.

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“Goblin mode” has a Covid connection too. But it also shows a world trying to shake off the Covid albatross at least lexically. Though it was first seen on Twitter in 2009, it went viral this year as Covid lockdown restrictions eased worldwide and people rejected the idea of returning to the “old normal.” As The Guardian described it, it was about “downing Eggo toaster oven waffles with hot sauce over the sink because you can’t be bothered to put them on a plate” as opposed to being the person who will “wake up at 5am and drink green juices and be hyperorganized.” In a world in “permacrisis” (another Word of the Year), there was no reason to care about being perfect or presentation.

India already had variants of “goblin mode”. For example, when nighties became an acceptable form of day-wear even outerwear, we were inching into goblin mode territory without realising it. Full goblin mode was when we stopped bothering with the dupatta to give it the pretence of an outfit.

India’s connection to the words of the year has usually been rather tenuous. The words of the year tend to reflect a fairly western, usually north American, perspective on the world. The American Dialect Society, which is the oldest English language word-of-the-year selector, clearly states they choose words that “reflect important events, people, places, ideas or preoccupations of English speakers in North America.”

Their 2021 Word of the Year was “Insurrection” after the Capitol attack of January 6. 2015’s “ammosexual” for someone with a fetishistic love for firearms was again deeply enmeshed in American culture. The very first time ADS chose a word of the year was in 1990. The word that year was “bushlips” a reference to George Bush Sr’s infamous “Read my lips: no new taxes” promise.

All of this makes one wonder what would the year look like if different Indian outlets chose their Word of the Year as well. Some of the words would match the American ones. “Fake News” (the 2017 ADS word of the year) easily crosses cultures. But others would be far more rooted in the Indian zeitgeist. “Whatsapp university” graduates exist all over the world but they seem to be more prolific in India than in most other parts of the world. Journalist Ravish Kumar is credited with coining the word but now it’s even entered the judicial system with the Kerala High Court dismissing a PIL saying “Don’t go by WhatsApp university.”

The word of the year could be an event like Y2K or 9/11 or the reverberation from the event. In 2016 when India was suddenly blindsided by demonetisation, but rather than demonetisation “masterstroke” would definitely have been a strong contender. 2015 was the year for “Award Wapsi”, kicked off by Uday Prakash, Nayantara Sahgal and Ashok Vajpeyi returning their Sahitya Akademi awards to protest what they deemed as a rising tide of violence and intolerance in India. A word that quickly led to the “Award wapsi gang” as well. A good Word of the Year is one that spawns new life and new memes.

Oxford Languages does choose Hindi words of the year but few others do. The 2020 Hindi word was Atmanirbharata because it “validated the day-to-day achievements of the countless Indians who dealt with and survived the perils of a pandemic.” Of course by 2021, that atmanirbharata had also become the stuff of a 1000 memes. Other Hindi words Oxford Languages deemed worthy were Nari Shakti (2018) and Samvidhaan (2019).

But sadly many of the words that would be our Word of the Year candidates in India would be the uglier word pushed into our consciousness by bots, algorithms and WhatsApp groups trying to shape the narrative. Words like “bhakt”, “libtard”, “tukde tukde gang”, “sickular”, “anti-national”, “godi media” have all muscled their way into viral prominence, amplified by hundreds of thousands of bots. A 2021 academic paper, Insights Into Incitement, on the computational perspective on dangerous speech on Twitter in India, showed how dangerous speech and the keywords that come with it can be rapidly disseminated through the platform. Tweeting about it, one of the authors Joyojeet Pal, said it was done often by “expendable” accounts that soon disappear as well as influencers who “act on the behest of an ideological slant” and sophisticated English-speaking commentators as well as mainstream journalists especially those targeting consumers of Hindi content. “The politics of moral outrage works well on polarising content in social media,” tweeted Pal. 

Not surprisingly, many of those words of polarization start buzzing all over the media. That report studied three events over 2019-2021 - the protests around the Citizenship Amendment Act, the Tablighi Jamaat congregation during the Covid-19 pandemic and the farmers protest. Each contributed its own vocabulary of polarisation to the word cloud of the year—“illegal immigrant” and hashtags like #CoronaJihad and #ShaheenBaghTruth and a revival of “khalistani” since many of the protesting farmers were Sikh.

But the interesting words are the words that have not been inflated to prominence by troll armies with an agenda. They bubble up, often unexpectedly, from a cultural churn. A look at the words chosen over the years by American Dialect Society, Merriam-Webster and Oxford English Dictionary are good examples of changing cultural tides. Words like #blacklivesmatter (2014) were born out of social/political movements that took America by surprise.“Carbon Neutral” (2006) and “Climate Emergency” (2019) reflect a greening of the language alongside a growing global anxiety about climate change. Other words showed the ways we kept ourselves busy - Selfie (2013) was a cultural phenomenon,Tweet (2009) was a technological wonder, Sudoku (2005) was the Wordle of its time. Yet others were the fallout of political earthquakes—Weapons of mass destruction (2002) and 9/11 (2001). And some feel quaint now but at that time were windows through which we were collectively nervously peering into the future. Like “e-“ (1998) as in e-mail and e-commerce.

India too has had these moments that have halted us in our tracks, Sometimes it’s a political upheaval, sometimes it’s social, sometimes triggered by an unprecedented terrible event. The end of 2012 unexpectedly gave us a Nirbhaya moment after the horrific rape in Delhi. In 2018, #MeToo swept India after Tanushree Dutta accused Nana Patekar of sexual harassment. In 2017 Oxford Languages chose Aadhaar, a word that had preoccupied millions of Indians as they struggled to get their documentation in order, terrified they would fall outside the purview of the state.

In fact an exercise to find the Word of the Year in a country as diverse as India would be a sort of crowd-sourced version of looking for unity in diversity.

Instead of fake old school Doordarshan style unity-in-diversity motifs, it’s these words that would reflect what brought Indians together in a year, sometimes in solidarity, sometimes in debate. They would reflect our passions, our preoccupations and also our anxieties.

An older India might have given us Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram or Emergency. The words that knit a newer India together reflect the seams of newer anxieties. I am thinking KYC, something which we keep needing to renew as a way to prove we are who we say we are. Or Whataboutery, the stuff that keeps online left/right arguments going endless in a vicious circle. But perhaps the word that really knits the country together now is “One Time Password”. Somewhere along the line India became a nation collectively waiting for its OTP whether from a bank or the portal to book a covid vaccine.

If India is to have a Word of the Decade that might well be it.

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