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YearEnder2018: The 'Toxic' Words that 'Triggered' Conversations this Year

YearEnder2018: The 'Toxic' Words that 'Triggered' Conversations this Year

A word that was once associated with air pollution, gas leaks and nuclear waste, 'toxic' today has come to define a large array of things. But what were the other words that defined 2018?

Don't you know that you're toxic?

That 'not-so-innocent' catchphrase from Britney Spears' 2001 song Toxic is an out-and-out indictment of the world we live in today.

A word that was once associated with air pollution, gas leaks and nuclear waste, toxic today has come to define a large array of disparate objects, concepts, feelings and abstractions, which include relationships, people, policies, structures.

From simply being an adjective that describes poisonous chemicals and substances, toxic has transformed into a metaphor. In fact, so wide was its application in 2018 that it was chosen to be the Oxford Word of the Year 2018.

One of the most influential usages of the word has been vis-a-vis the expression of gender identity. 'Toxic masculinity' is a term that has helped many identify and label patterns of indirect patriarchal control and sexism inherent to conditioned human behaviour.

The fact that its popularity aligned with the global Me Too movement and the fight against sexual harassment at work and home by those in power was no coincidence. Starting with the initial spark in 2017, the string of accusations against Hollywood Mogul Harvey Weinstein snowballed into a universal awakening. Several names fell from grace and, while several offences are yet to be proved and offenders yet to face the music, the fact is that more women today may be feeling safer than they did inside offices than they did a decade ago.

Mental Health Matters

But toxic was just one of the many words that shaped the way people think in 2018. The collective human gab saw an upsurge in new words and many of them were to do with gender, equality, rights and refreshingly, mental health. Case in point, gaslighting.

This year was big on the word because, much like toxic, gaslighting puts a label on an aspect of human behaviour that has so far been hard to define or identify at a non-clinical level and is thus often neglected. Gaslighting is defined as 'psychologically manipulating (someone) into doubting their own sanity'.

It is usually employed, wittingly or unwittingly, as a tactic by some people to subvert others, to shirk responsibility or accountability for their own actions or simply to put others at unease.

In terms of mental health, it is an important word as it helps identify aggressors of mental stress and burden. With the popularity of the word, many behaviours such as gaslighting , emotional manipulation and power play were talked about with respect to gender dynamics at home and in work-spaces, as well as in popular content. It is also used as part of political commentary as is is often used to describe the actions of certain world leaders such as Donald Trump.

Social media was an important tool for the catharsis of many harassment survivors who came out with their stories of dealing with gaslighting and finding communities of like-minded survivors. Another important word in this regard was trigger. Like toxic, it evolved from being simply meaning 'to cause a reaction' to something with more loaded connotations.

The word is now an umbrella term for anything that could cause mental stress or trauma or remind one of past injuries. It includes crude references to sexual abuse, sexism, mental abuse, mental health and more, which have been normalized by films, music and pop culture.

While the concept of 'triggers' was already used to understand clinical cues in psychology, the wider application of the word among the general populace could mean that more people today are concerned about mental health than before.

Focus on Accountability

With massive leaps and bounds in tech advancement and artificial intelligence, the keyword in the techno-sphere today is accountability. How can increasingly powerful companies be held accountable so that they do not misuse their powers?

This is an important question today, expressed in  the word techlash - a beautiful example of how a language evolves to include the developments in its surroundings.

Techlash is defined as the rising anger and backlash against major technology companies, as a result of concerns about their growing power, users' privacy, the possibility of political manipulation etc. The year saw more than one tech giant appear for very public and internationally-broadcast hearings regarding instances of data breaches and accusations of data manipulation.

The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which data of 50 million user accounts were harvested and possibly used to sway the 2016 Presidential elections in the US, opened the world's eyes to the sheer power of tech companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, with regards to matters of politics and security. Their role in driving targeted sales, pushing targeted content and manipulating user behaviour is only just being questioned.

And so it is no surprise that words like techlash were used widely across platforms in 2018.

Names of Dissent

Apart from these internationally relevant words, some words that were earlier uncommon in India became common currency. Urban naxal is one such term which came to replace yesteryears' anti-national. Popularised by writer-filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri, the term was widely used by the government as well as other authorities while carrying out a series of arrests this year.

Several activists, educators and thinkers, who had alleged links with extremism and the Naxal movements, were arrested under the garb of targeting urban naxal activities. The arrests caused nation-wide outrage and the cases are currently pending in courts.

While words like lynching had already returned to popularity from 2016 onward, they remained strong on Google and Twitter trends, as did words like gaurakshak and mob violence.

Matters of the Heart

While its hard to articulate love and emotions related to love, humans have slowly developed a repertoire of words to assist them along the hard task.

If you thought your date was ghosting you was so last year, you were right. Because this year, ghosting - the willful act of ignoring someone after a romantic interaction or relationship - has been replaced by orbiting.

We all have that ex who made a clean break of it years ago but still manages to be the first one to like all our social media posts. A much-needed word, orbiting refers to the situation when a date or an ex has cut off ties with a person but still engages with them virtually. Sound familiar? Now you know.

This year, another word that made it to the list of new words that became a buzzword in the dating world, especially among young, single men.

Incels, short for 'involuntary celibates' are members of an online dating subculture that consists largely of single, mostly white, heterosexual males. The community describes inceldom as the state when a man who is romantically available and ready to date women but the latter just won't date them.

Many have described the incel community as a toxic community that targets women for rejecting men and it has been argued that incel culture is yet another expression of - yes, you guessed it - toxic masculinity.

If languages and words reflect the progression of human thought, this year's analysis is somewhat cheery. More and more people across various walk of life are mobilizing . People are questioning the status quo and calling out abuses of power in various aspects of life.

There's an increased online discussion about sexual harassment, sexism, mental health, power dynamics, and accountability of the powerful and the environment.

But if the pen is mightier than the sword, its ammo must cut through more than just bullets. It must engage and imbibe, it must unlearn and educate anew.

first published:December 29, 2018, 10:33 IST