Today's Paper Latest The Article Core Values iPad Story ideas Weather Newsletters Obits Puzzles Archive

BRENDA LOOPER: Weighty words

What does it all mean? by Brenda Looper | December 11, 2019 at 3:09 a.m.
Brenda Looper

A little over a month ago, I wrote about the first “Word of the Year,” released by Cambridge Dictionary—“upcycling.” Now that December is in full swing, a couple of others have weighed in, and … it’s kind of depressing. name-dropped Toy Story 4’s Forky, a spork who struggled to be a toy, in its Word of the Year post, saying, “his dilemma actually speaks to a broader theme of threat and crisis reflected not only in culture and news, but also in our dictionary work throughout this year. High-stakes events around the world involving climate change, gun violence, and democratic institutions were some of the top news stories. And words about these events, from ‘polar vortex’ to ‘stochastic terrorism’ to ‘exonerate,’ were top searches and trends on

“Notable among searches was ‘existential,’ which we’ve chosen as our Word of the Year for 2019. It captures a sense of grappling with the survival—literally and figuratively—of our planet, our loved ones, our ways of life. … But ‘existential’ also 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.”

Yep, just what I want from my dictionary: an existential crisis. defines existential as “of or relating to existence” (a sense that entered English in the late 1600s), and “concerned with the nature of human existence as determined by the individual’s freely made choices” (a sense first recorded in the early 1900s).

I haven’t had to think about my college philosophy class in years, and now the dictionary is bringing it all back. I do think a lot about what my life means, but I have no urge to dive into Sartre and Kierkegaard to try to explain my angst. I can only be so nerdy, and I choose to concentrate on word-nerdiness.

Incidents throughout 2019, including fires in the Amazon and Hurricane Dorian, caused spikes in searches for “existential,” wrote, but “for all the feeling of doom and gloom in 2019, existential was also a surprising and welcome bright spot in popular culture this year. It shows how we are using existential humor to address our pressing predicaments.”

That humor included Forky, as well as NBC’s The Good Place and Amazon Prime’s Good Omens, both of which are highly entertaining while also imparting a little philosophical knowledge. Plus there was the unintentional humor of a group of protesters demanding that Netflix remove the satirical Good Omens from its library, contending that it promoted evil. Kinda hard for Netflix to do that with a show it had nothing to do with, sooo …

Oxford also released its word of the year, and it’s related to existential in many ways, not the least of which was climate activist Greta Thunberg’s recent appearances, including a speech to Congress on Sept. 18 in which she said, “I have a dream that the people in power, as well as the media, start treating this crisis like the existential emergency it is.”

The Oxford Dictionaries blog notes: “The Oxford Word of the Year is a word or expression shown through usage evidence to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year, and have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance.” The expression that did that for 2019, it said, was “climate emergency.”

“This year,” Oxford wrote, “heightened public awareness of climate science and the myriad implications for communities around the world has generated enormous discussion of what the UN Secretary-General has called ‘the defining issue of our time.’ But it is not just this upsurge in conversation that has caught our attention. Our research reveals a demonstrable escalation in the language people are using to articulate information and ideas concerning the climate.”

The blog noted that the term hasn’t been without controversy, as some people have questioned its validity in describing the state of the environment, and others have worried about the implications of declarations of climate emergency.

Sounds like an existential crisis to me.

As I wrote this, Merriam-Webster announced its Word of the Year (more on that next week), and we’re inching ever closer to the time when Lake Superior State University releases its list of words that deserve banishment from the English language (crossing my fingers for its’).

Don’t forget, I still want to know what words have made you happy this year, and which ones made you growl deep in your throat anytime someone dared speak them. Let me know in the comments under my column on the newspaper’s website, in the comments on my blog, or by emailing me at

I’m loving that Oxford finally added “bampot” (meaning an idiot or fool) to the dictionary this year. The Scottish insult has been around at least since 1962.

Very little makes me happier than hearing a Scot say words like “bampot.” Add chocolate and cats, and I can retire happy.


Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at . Email her at blooper@

Print Headline: BRENDA LOOPER: Weighty words


Sponsor Content