If your 2019 went anything like ours, it sounded a lot like this:
“What is happening? What does it all mean? How long will the human species stay alive if the planet’s on fire?”
They’re all powerful questions. And according to Dictionary.com, we’ve been tackling a lot of heavy stuff in 2019. That’s why the site chose its word of the year to be “existential.”
The word “inspires us to ask big questions about who we are and what our purpose is in the face of our various challenges – and it reminds us that we can make choices about our lives in how we answer those questions.”
But there’s a darker side to the choice.
In the year defined largely by themes of “threat and crisis,” the word kept coming up in searches – searches that often followed events that involved climate change, gun violence and democratic institutions, the site said.
Let us explain.
What it really means
As with most words in the English language (sigh), the word has two slightly different ways you can use it.
“Entering English in the late 1600s, this existential is often used when the fact of someone or something’s being – its very existence – is at stake. An existential threat to a species, for example, puts its continued existence in real, concrete peril,” the site said.
Like for example, that time scientists warned climate change poses a “near-to-mid-term existential threat to human civilization.”
The other way the word is used is “concerned with the nature of human existence as determined by the individual’s freely made choices,” according to Dictionary.com.
Like for example, that time when Google Calendar was down for three hours and we all had an existential crisis.
You can also associate this second definition with “existential questions,” which often seek answers relating to the “nature and purpose of life,” the site said.
(Think: “To be or not to be,” and “Why bother making my bed anyway?”)
Why they chose it
The word “captures a sense of grappling with the survival – literally and figuratively – of our planet, our loved ones, our ways of life,” Dictionary.com said.
It breaks down three major reason they crowned this word the winner.
The term “existential” spiked often after discussions on climate change and major natural disasters, like Hurricane Dorian, the site said.
It also jumped to mind after man-made disasters, when hateful rhetoric seemed to influence criminals.
After the El Paso massacre — when a shooter opened fire at a Walmart and killed 22 people – a local official said, “words are having more and more significant existential consequences in our society,” the site said.
It said that after the massacre, terms like “stochastic terrorism” and “white supremacy” surged in searches.
The third reason Dictionary.com chose it?
The Democratic presidential nominee once called President Donald Trump an “existential threat to America.”
“One thing’s for sure: Biden’s use of existential sent searches for the word up over 1,000%,” the site said.
Previous years’ words have been pretty gloomy too
It sounds like planet Earth has been having a moment.
Past years weren’t any better.
Last year, Dictionary.com chose “misinformation” as its word of the year.
“Armed with awareness, we can all do our best to recognize misinformation when we encounter it and work toward stopping its spread,” the site said.
It said its choice was a “call to action” to help fight false information that circulated.
In 2017, the magic word was “complicit.” In an interview that year, Ivanka Trump said, “I don’t know what it means to be complicit.”
It means “choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others,” the site said.
In 2016, the winner was “xenophobia” — defined as “a fear or hatred of foreigners.”
“This particular year saw fear rising to the surface of cultural discourse,” the online dictionary had said.
Here’s to hoping next year’s word will be “puppies.”