Dic­tionary.com’s word of the year is ‘xeno­pho­bia’

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FEATURES - By Leanne Italie

NEW YORK >> You might have thought about it, heard it. A lot. You might have even felt it: Dic­tionary.com’s word of the year is “xeno­pho­bia.”

While it’s dif­fi­cult to get at ex­actly why peo­ple look words up in dic­tio­nar­ies, on­line or on paper, it’s clear that in con­tentious 2016, fear of “oth­er­ness” bruised the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness around the globe.

The Brexit vote, police vi­o­lence against peo­ple of color, Syria’s refugee cri­sis, trans­sex­ual rights and the U.S. pres­i­den­tial race were among prom­i­nent de­vel­op­ments that drove de­bate — and spikes in lookups of the word, said Jane Solomon, one of the dic­tionary site’s lex­i­cog­ra­phers.

The 21-year-old site de­fines xeno­pho­bia as “fear or ha­tred of for­eign­ers, peo­ple from dif­fer­ent cul­tures, or strangers.” And it plans to ex­pand its en­try to in­clude fear or dis­like of “cus­toms, dress and cul­tures of peo­ple with back­grounds dif­fer­ent from our own,” Solomon said in a re­cent in­ter­view.

The word didn’t en­ter the English lan­guage un­til the late 1800s, she said. Its roots are in two Greek words — “xenos,” mean­ing “stranger or guest,” and “pho­bos,” mean­ing “fear or panic,” Solomon added.

The in­ter­est was clear June 24, within a pe­riod that rep­re­sents the largest spike in lookups of xeno­pho­bia so far this year. That was the day of Brexit, when the UK voted to leave the Euro­pean Union.

Searches for xeno­pho­bia on the site in­creased by 938 per­cent from June 22 to June 24, Solomon said. Lookups spiked again that month af­ter Pres­i­dent Obama’s June 29 speech in which he in­sisted that Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign rhetoric was not a mea­sure of “pop­ulism,” but rather “na­tivism, or xeno­pho­bia, or worse.”

Solomon added that chatter about xeno­pho­bia goes well beyond the spikes.

“It has been sig­nif­i­cant through­out the year,” she said. “But af­ter the EU ref­er­en­dum, hun­dreds and hun­dreds of users were look­ing up the term ev­ery hour.”

Robert Re­ich, who served in the ad­min­is­tra­tions of Pres­i­dents Ger­ald Ford and Jimmy Carter and was Pres­i­dent Clin­ton’s la­bor sec­re­tary, felt so strongly about xeno­pho­bia’s promi­nence to­day that he ap­pears in a video for Dic­tionary.com dis­cussing its ram­i­fi­ca­tions.

“I don’t think most peo­ple even know what xeno­pho­bia is,” Re­ich, who teaches pub­lic pol­icy at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berkeley, said in an in­ter­view. “It’s a word not to be cel­e­brated but to be deeply con­cerned about.”

Solomon’s site, based in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, started choos­ing a word of the year in 2010, based on search data and agreement of in-house ex­perts that in­clude a broad swath of the com­pany, from lex­i­cog­ra­phers to the mar­ket­ing and prod­uct teams to the CEO, Liz McMil­lan.

The word and the sen­ti­ment re­flect a broader mourn­ful tone to 2016, with Oxford dic­tionary edi­tors choos­ing “post-truth” as their word of the year, of­ten de­scribed in terms of pol­i­tics as be­long­ing to a time in which truth has be­come ir­rel­e­vant.

“I wish,” Solomon said, “we could have cho­sen a word like uni­corns.”

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