Failure is the theme in top words of 2013

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Language tells all there is to know about people. Death of a language is the death of a culture. Complex languages denote complex people. Languages change, so do we.

If this is to be believed, our times shall be designated as the error message one gets when clicking on something that isn’t really there. To be honest, that feels about right.

Each year, the Austin, Texas-based Global Language Monitor releases a list of top words and phrases based upon media usage, topical relevance and cultural significance. The GLM’s top word of 2013 is “404.”

That might confound some of you, particularly those less adept at navigating the internet. But most probably know 404 as the strange number you see any time a website fails.

“404 has gained enormous attention the world over this year as systems in place since World War II, which many see as the beginning of the contemporary era, are in distress or even failure.” said Paul JJ Payack of the Global Language Monitor. “The recent ObamaCare launch debacle in the U.S. is only a representative example of a much wider system fail, from the political deadlock in the U.S. Government, to the decline of the dollar, to the global web of intrigue and surveillance by the NSA, to the uncertainty regarding the European Union, and the on-going integration of China and other rising powers, such as India and Brazil into the global economic system.”

The GLM has been on a morose streak in recent years. Last year’s top word was “apocalypse,” preceded by SpillCam, refugee, incivility, bailout and tsunami in the years before that. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a happy word make it to the top of the list, but we have only ourselves to blame. These words emerge from human events and how we talk about them.

Other words made GLM’s top words list, too. “Deadlock,” “stalemate,” and filibuster” are all on there, along with variations on the “404” theme: like “Fail” and referring to mindless process as being a “franke-whatever” in honor of the Frankenstein creature crafted from dead bodies and lightning. The words on the list that are NOT depressing include “hashtag” and “twerking,” though for different reasons these aren’t necessarily good things. “Pontifax,” the Twitter handle of Pope Francis made the cut, and the popular new pontiff arguably had the best year of any of the “Top People” on GLM’s 2013 list.

Naturally, viewpoints differ on something like the “top words” of any given year. Oxford Dictionaries named “Selfie” as its top word of 2013, referring to the photographs people take of themselves using mobile devices, which often end up posted to the internet by photographer, who is also the subject. “Selfie” was in the news again this week when the Danish prime minister invited President Obama to participate in her own selfie (along with the British prime minister) as dignitaries awaited the beginning of Nelson Mandela’s funeral. These are words I just typed about true things that happened.

Merriam-Webster, not to be outdone, named “science” its top word, which seems odd until you realize how they selected their word. There was a big spike in the number of people searching for the word “science” on their website. Why? Because, as search engines now represent an actual working part of human neural pathway, people — likely students — are going to a dictionary website to start their science homework and are typing in the word “science” in the search bar.

For some perspective, this would be like going to a restaurant and asking them if they are serving any “food” today. Why yes, many kinds. “But, what is ‘food?’ Take it from the top, I’m new here.”

Again, not particularly encouraging. But don’t get angry at the top words list-makers. They’re just calling what they see. Maybe we could use a more positive outlook in our lives. Maybe we could use some meaningful action instead of mindless bickering and self-defeat. That might well be the defining criticism of our times.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


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