'Youthquake' is Oxford's word of the year

Young voters take selfies with Jeremy Corbyn, Britain's opposition Labour Party leader, at a campaign event in Leeds, on May 10, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES)- Merriam-Webster chose "feminism", Dictionary.com went "complicit", while Cambridge Dictionary anointed "populism".

Now, Oxford Dictionaries is announcing that its international Word of the Year for 2017 is …"youthquake"? "Youthquake" - defined as a "significant cultural, political or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people" - triumphed over a politically pointed shortlist that included "Antifa", "broflake", "kompromat", "fragility" and "Milkshake Duck".

Katherine Connor Martin, the head of Oxford's new words program, acknowledged that it was an unusual choice. The former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland apparently coined "youthquake" in the 1960s, to describe the youth culture of Swinging London, and it maintained a modest if somewhat retro currency in conversations about style.

But in the past year its frequency increased about 400 per cent, according to analysis of the Oxford English Corpus, which collects roughly 150 million words of spoken and written English from various sources each month.

It surged first in coverage of the British parliamentary elections in June, when a spike in voting by young people helped deal a blow to the Conservative Party, before spreading to political commentary in New Zealand, Australia, the United States and elsewhere.

"It has a very neat symmetry," Martin said. "It originally referred to changes in fashion caused by baby boomers coming of age. Now, we're seeing it emerge in an electoral politics context, as millennials displace the baby boomers."

Some dictionary companies' choices are based on frequency of look-ups. Oxford's Word of the Year, Martin said, reflects not just social and political issues, but is also intended to highlight the ways language changes over time. (Its choice last year was "post-truth".) Some words on this year's shortlist, like "kompromat" and "Antifa", are foreign loan words that suddenly became part of common English vocabulary, thanks to current events. Others are coinages that reflect intersecting, long-developing language trends.

Take "broflake", a derogatory term for a conservative man who is easily offended by progressive attitudes (even as he mocks progressives as overly sensitive "snowflakes"). It reflects the tendency, especially in online discourse, to reappropriate insults in highly ironic, self-referential ways. It also reflects the way portmanteau coinages incorporating "bro-" and "man-" - "portmanbros", if you will - have increasingly taken on a critical edge, in keeping with shifts in conversations around gender.

"How we get from relatively genial terms like 'bromance' or 'man cave' to more critical terms like 'broflake' or 'manspreading' is interesting," Martin said. "It speaks to the way people are increasingly interested in questioning what they see as male privilege."

Dictionaries are supposed to provide objective information about how words are used, Martin emphasised, not to weigh in on contemporary issues. But Oxford, in its announcement, did allow that "youthquake" is the rare emerging political term that sounds a "hopeful note".

Of course, the fact that the dreaded millennials are taking over the language may not seem like good news to everyone. Martin, for the record, identified herself as a "Xennial", as members of the micro-generation just behind Gen X are sometimes known. "We considered 'Xennial' for the shortlist," she said, "but it didn't make the cut".

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