Dictionary.com chooses ‘existential’ as word of the year

Word kept appearing in searches after wildfires, Hurricane Dorian, and mass shootings

This Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, photo shows the word “existential” in a dictionary in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

This Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, photo shows the word “existential” in a dictionary in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

Climate change, gun violence, the very nature of democracy and an angsty little movie star called Forky helped propel “existential” to Dictionary.com’s word of the year.

The choice reflects months of high-stakes threats and crises, real and pondered, across the news, the world and throughout 2019.

“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, senior research editor for the site.

The word earned top-of-mind awareness in sustained searches at Dictionary.com in the aftermath of wildfires and Hurricane Dorian, and mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso, Texas. It also reared itself in presidential politics and pop culture, including Forky the white plastic spork who was the breakout star of “Toy Story 4.”

The soiled utensil is convinced his destiny is in the trash, until he embraces his purpose as a treasured toy of kindergartener Bonnie.

“Forky underscores how this sense of grappling can also inspire us to ask big questions about who we are, about our purpose,” Kelly told The Associated Press.

Oxford Dictionaries picked “climate emergency” as its word of the year, noting usage evidence that reflects the “ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year,” the company said in a statement.

Dictionary.com crunches lookup and other data to decide which word to anoint each year. The site has been picking a word of the year since 2010.

Among search spikes for “existential” were those that occurred after both Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders and 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg characterized climate change as an “existential” crisis, Kelly said.

Another spike occurred when former Vice-President Joe Biden, also vying for the Democratic presidential nod, painted President Donald Trump as an “existential threat” to decency.

The word dates to 1685, deriving from Late Latin’s “existentialis.” Dictionary.com defines existential as “of or relating to existence” and “of, relating to, or characteristic of philosophical existentialism; concerned with the nature of human existence as determined by the individual’s freely made choices.”

READ MORE: ‘Climate emergency’ is Oxford’s 2019 Word of the Year

Enter Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel and Jean-Paul Sartre, thinkers who moulded and embraced existentialism, among other movements.

Climate, guns and the impeachment crisis for Donald Trump were just a few areas that seemed to frame debate in existential terms. So did the Hong Kong protests, the Notre Dame fire, tensions between the United States and China, and Big Tech’s privacy and fake news problems.

“We started to see existential in the dialogue beginning in January and all the way through the year,” said Jennifer Steeves-Kiss, Dictionary.com’s chief executive officer. “This is a consistent theme that we saw in our data, but it also was leveraged across many different important questions of our time.”

As for Forky, his journey from disposable utensil to handmade toy points to the concept of “agency,” Kelly said, referring to the power to direct our own existences. That, he said, affords us the “opportunity to turn existential threats into existential choices.”

Leanne Italie, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Demonstrators at the legislature on April 14 called on the province to decriminalize drug possession and provide widespread access to regulated safe supply across B.C. (Jake Romphf/News Staff)
Rally calls for decriminalization, safe supply as overdose emergency turns 5

From 2016 to the end of February, 7,072 British Columbians died due to overdose

An employee at Sidney’s Thrifty Foods tested positive for COVID-19, the parent company Sobeys posted on its website Wednesday. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
COVID-19 case reported at Sidney grocery store

Thrifty Foods employee last worked at the store April 3

The Latoria South section of the Royal Bay development in Colwood could include a new long-term care facility. (Black Press Media file photo)
Colwood’s Royal Bay could be home to new long-term care facilities

Capital Regional Hospital District board approves $8M land purchase for purpose

(Black Press Media file photo)
Youth gets combative with police at Victoria hospital

VicPD officer injured, youth kept in care under Mental Health Act

Acclaimed author Eden Robinson hosts a virtual conversation and reading from her latest book, Return of the Trickster, on Friday, April 23, in conjunction with the Vancouver Island Regional Library. (Photo courtesy of VIRL)
Island author brings Trickster in online library event

Fans of the work of Eden Robinson will get the opportunity to… Continue reading

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: Do you have a plan in place in the event of a tsunami?

Tsunamis have claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people between 1998… Continue reading

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of April 13

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

(Government of Canada)
Liberal MP caught stark naked during House of Commons video conference

William Amos, in Quebec, appeared on the screens of his fellow members of Parliament completely naked

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, Feb. 1, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count jumps to 1,168 Wednesday, nearly 400 in hospital

Now 120 coronavirus patients in intensive care, six more deaths

Moss covered branches are seen in the Avatar Old Growth Forest near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island, B.C. Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. blockades aimed at protecting old-growth forests reveal First Nation split

Two Pacheedaht chiefs say they’re ‘concerned about the increasing polarization over forestry activities’ in the territory

One of the grand prizes for this year's Hometown Heroes Lottery includes a seaside home at SookePoint, $1.5 million, and an Audi Quattro. (Photo courtesy of Hometown Heroes)
Hometown Heroes Lottery features seaside home in Sooke

A stunning seaside home in Sooke could be yours for the price… Continue reading

City workers from Duncan were busy recently putting up street signs in both Hul’q’umi’num’ and English. (Submitted photo)
Hul’q’umi’num street signs installed in downtown Duncan

Partnership with Cowichan Tribes sees English street names twinned with Indigenous language

Homicide investigators who asked not to be identified put up signs Wednesday, April 14, along the Nanaimo Parkway in the area where a body was found March 31. RCMP are asking for witnesses or dash cam footage as the suspicious death has now been ruled a homicide. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Suspicious death along the highway in Nanaimo now being investigated as a homicide

RCMP identify victim as Randell Charles Thomas, repeat call for any information related to the case

Most Read