Just chill: Language change in the age of eco-anxiety

Happy New Year! And welcome to the new 10th edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, which launches this month both in print and with a fresh new design on the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries site. It has been a great privilege to select and edit new words for the dictionary over the last five years. I have been taking a survey of some of the trends that can be observed in the new words added to the dictionary in that time: which topics and themes have generated the most interesting, important or controversial new words?

Right now, at the turn of the 2020s, the focus seems to be all on the environment and climate change. Oxford Word of the Year 2019 was climate emergency[1] and all ten words on the shortlist were environment-themed, including climate crisis, ecocide and global heating. In May last year, the UK newspaper The Guardian announced that it would in future use the term ‘global heating’ instead of ‘global warming’ and ‘climate crisis’ or ‘climate emergency’ instead of ‘climate change’[2] and use of these terms globally has increased massively in the last year. This shift to more extreme language reflects a greater sense of urgency about the threat posed by climate change, which we also see in the Australian wildfires and in the climate strikes by schoolchildren around the world, whatever the climate change deniers may say.

In politics, too, we see extremes – with often no real middle ground between – whether it is Brexiteers versus Remainers, the alt-right or Antifa. Many people on each side inhabit an echo chamber, an environment in which they only encounter opinions and beliefs similar to their own. In this post-truth society, facts and fake news are easily confused. Hate speech attacks or threatens a particular group of people, especially on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation. Warriors of various types – class warriors, culture warriors, urban warriors, social justice warriors – campaign with determination for the causes they believe in.

All of this can lead to increased levels of anxiety. This is not just a feeling of worry but a recognized mental health problem that causes someone to worry so much that it has a very negative effect on their daily life. Mental health – though not a new term – has become an entry in the dictionary in its own right, reflecting an increased focus on mental health issues. The term refers both to the state of health of someone’s mind and to the system for treating people with mental health problems. (The government has announced £600 million extra funding for mental health.)

There are many different causes of anxiety reflected in new words and phrases added to the dictionary since 2015. Members of the precariat, working in insecure jobs in the gig economy, may be experiencing food insecurity and fuel poverty. Lack of affordable housing can lead to a rise in the number of rough sleepers on the streets. Other forms of insecurity centre around a person’s self-identity and body image. They may be a victim of body shaming, or simply accused of being a snowflake – a person who is too sensitive to criticism and easily upset.

This is a very sober note on which to start the new decade but it seems undeniable that language reflects the mood of the times. Of course, hand-wringing – the behaviour that comes from being nervous or worried – achieves nothing. Some people practise mindfulness, a mental state achieved by concentrating on the present moment, while calmly accepting the feelings and thoughts that come to you, and this may help on a personal level. When it comes to society, we are urged to stay woke (= aware of social and political issues, especially racism). For me, young people, far from being snowflakes, are the best hope we have for positive change: I am hoping for a youthquake (= a significant cultural, political or social change that occurs because of the actions or influence of young people).

French-speaking readers of Belgian newspaper Le Soir have a cooler approach. For their Word of the Year 2019 they have chosen the English word chill[3]. This reminds me of my favourite word added to the 8th edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, way back in 2010 – chillax (chill + relax so not just ‘chill’ but ‘really chill’). But can we still chillax going into the 2020s? According to our latest corpus data, yes we can:

You won’t find any single-use plastic here… That is so 2018. Chillax and read on to see our favourite sustainable and eco-friendly gift ideas.

And extremes in language can be positive too, expressing enthusiasm and appreciation:

I’m not just a big fan of her work – I’m a mahoosive fan.

Those guys really went above and beyond to help me.

You two go and have fun. Go on – knock yourselves out.

Finally, to end on a really positive note, whatever else 2020 may bring, we are really proud to launch this new edition of the dictionary, thoroughly updated for the new decade. Knock yourselves out exploring all the new words and the completely revamped Topic Dictionaries and Text Checker. Let us know what you think! But when you need a break – as they say in Belgium – just chill.

Diana Lea is a Managing Editor of the new, 10th edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.

[1] https://languages.oup.com/word-of-the-year/2019/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/17/why-the-guardian-is-changing-the-language-it-uses-about-the-environment

[3] https://www.lesoir.be/269733/article/2019-12-29/chill-sacre-nouveau-mot-de-lannee-2019-par-les-lecteurs-du-soir-et-de-la-rtbf


Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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