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

Alberta premier Jason Kenney declared a public health state of emergency Tuesday and sweeping new measures as COVID-19 cases in the province continue to rise. (photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Kenney declares state of public health emergency as COVID-19 cases rise

High schools shift to online learning, businesses face new restrictions

The tree decorated in red decorations is called the Buffalo Plaid Cottage Tree. Papple says this tree has more of a "taditional, cottage-y feel." (Photo Submitted)
Sylvan Lake resident auctioning decorated Christmas trees to help local charities

Shauntel Papple is auctioning two fully decorated trees to benefit AACS and Youth Unlimited

(Photo submitted)
Bentley couple celebrates 60th anniversary

They still laugh, hold hands, play crib and fish says daughter

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, announced the province surpasses one million COVID-19 tests Friday. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
COVID-19: Central zone active cases up by 100 in last 24 hours

Most central Alberta communities under province’s enhanced measures list

.
Alberta confirmed more than 1,500 COVID-19 cases Sunday

Central zone active cases slightly up

Kyle Charles poses for a photo in Edmonton on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. Marvel Entertainment, the biggest comic book publisher in the world, hired the 34-year-old First Nations illustrator as one of the artists involved in Marvel Voice: Indigenous Voices #1 in August. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
VIDEO: Indigenous illustrator of new Marvel comic hopes Aboriginal women feel inspired

Kyle Charles says Indigenous women around the world have reached out

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak to the media about the COVID-19 virus outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s inability to manufacture vaccines in-house will delay distribution: Trudeau

First doses of COVID-19 vaccine expected in first few months of 2021, prime minister says

This undated photo issued by the University of Oxford shows of vial of coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, in Oxford, England. Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca said Monday Nov. 23, 2020, that late-stage trials showed its coronavirus vaccine was up to 90% effective, giving public health officials hope they may soon have access to a vaccine that is cheaper and easier to distribute than some of its rivals. (University of Oxford/John Cairns via AP)
VIDEO: How do the leading COVID vaccines differ? And what does that mean for Canada?

All three of the drug companies are incorporating novel techniques in developing their vaccines

Ilaria Rubino is shown in this undated handout image at University of Alberta. Alberta researcher Rubino has developed technology allowing mostly salt to kill pathogens in COVID-19 droplets as they land on a mask. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-University of Alberta
Alberta researcher gets award for COVID-19 mask innovation

The salt-coated mask is expected to be available commercially next year after regulatory approval.

Russ and Luanne Carl are sharing about their experiences of fighting COVID-19 this past summer. (Photo submitted)
Stettler couple opens up about COVID-19 battle

Luanne and Russ Carl urge others to bolster personal safety measures amidst ongoing pandemic

This 2019 photo provided by The ALS Association shows Pat Quinn. Quinn, a co-founder of the viral ice bucket challenge, died Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, at the age of 37. (Scott Kauffman/The ALS Association via AP)
Co-founder of viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge dies at 37

Pat Quinn was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, in 2013

Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti speaks with the media following party caucus in Ottawa, Tuesday, January 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Exclusion of mental health as grounds for assisted death is likely temporary: Lametti

Senators also suggested the exclusion renders the bill unconstitutional

Claudio Mastronardi, Toronto branch manager at Carmichael Engineering, is photographed at the company’s offices in Mississauga, Ont., Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. As indoor air quality becomes a major concern in places of business, HVAC companies are struggling to keep up with demand for high quality filtration systems. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Business is booming for HVAC companies as commercial buildings see pandemic upgrades

‘The demand right now is very high. People are putting their health and safety ahead of cost’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak to the media about the COVID-19 virus outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Long-awaited federal rent subsidy program for businesses hurt by COVID-19 opens today

The new program will cover up to 65 per cent of rent or commercial mortgage interest

Most Read