In a year of conflict and overarching grief what you would wonder with a little tweak of Shakespeare, is in a word. That too one like ‘Rizz,’ a slang for ‘style, charm, or attractiveness’ chosen as Oxford’s word of the year. Additionally, it is also interpreted as ‘the ability to attract a romantic or sexual partner.’ Syncing it with the real world is to play to a gallery where the banality of Taylor Swift as Time’s Person of the Year, when media and medics in war torn areas defy death daily, is applauded.
And yet, humanity is fragile — denial and escapism when the going gets relentless are its inherent characters. Rizz, ripped off charisma, gives soul-searching a break, however brief the interlude. More importantly, it allows us to dream. Of a world where children are not bombed, where they grow up.
Of the eight words that made the final cut, ‘Swiftie’ in a universe of Swifties is predictable, in this parallel setting, a singer’s cult is being recognised as an era but both celebrity activism — a proud trait of American stars — and ironically a voice, remains missing. A word can also remind us of where we fall short. Taylor Swift’s silence is as resounding as her own sellout concerts.
The metamorphosis of words can also be seen through the journey of names, a mere word that defines a whole.
2023 was the year of the young and the restless. They moved on from their ‘Goblin Mode’ of the previous year — defined as behaviour that is ‘unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.’ Then it was a nod to post pandemic blues, clutching as we did to sweatpants and athleisure while being distrustful of anything outside the comfort space. We were not misguided, in the real-world men holding a white flag are gunned down by their own forces and thousands of children are orphaned thoughtlessly. In 2023, those spaces shrunk.
So, did we then really find our Rizz this year? That bounce in the footstep, can it be authentic when death and pain have singed thousands? Yet, hope cannot be bought. Just as there was tumult through Goblin Mode, there is yearning for normalcy through Rizz.
Words and language are not refractive, they are a bottomless collection of emotions. Beyond communication, it is not the power of words, it is that words have power. To quote the legendary Latin poet Antionio Porchia, “What words say does not last. The words last. Because words are always the same and what they say is never the same.”
A word’s journey from doctor’s clinic to dining table
From Kitawaramba, Swahili for it will come back to haunt you to ‘permacrisis’ that became popular in 2022 but not surprisingly continues to gain strength, words take a slice of the tangible just as much of the elusive. It is a game, sometimes the word is in your face — in 2021 the pandemic took ‘vax’ from the doctor’s clinic straight to the dining table — and at other times obliquely, it gathers thought.
Emphasis on the use of certain words reflects a sociocultural construct and with changes in society, language too evolves or at times, disintegrates. With the quick turnaround in pop culture and online trends pushing their way through, it is tough to dismiss digital or social media slang. While intellectually dubious it does steal in a message every now and then reflecting all that we see or feel, the good with the bad. Incidentally, the phrase digital detox was possibly the most abused term of the year.
That however is the language of today, changing with the times and yet shaping culture and forcing identity. Above all, it remains a work in progress.
The diversity in language though was never more apparent. Apologists, victims, the powerful, all speak a different language. Some make us sit up and think while it suits others to keep society in a maze of semantics. Often, it is also lost in translation, but the universal binary is that language by itself is a phenomenon.
The metamorphosis of words can also be seen through the journey of names, a mere word that defines a whole. Yet, through centuries, it has evolved just as much as it has shrugged past burdens. From traditional names in the previous decades to ones that are borne of contemporary casualness and almost in symmetry, a society’s evolution is always in its thinking.
How sentences have changed
Language in a larger sweep and words in its shelter allow for imagination to be free flowing, today sentences are almost conversational and staccato. Yet a Hemingway or a Murakami would equally find a way if someone were looking. The beauty of words is that you can always find your way back home. Or correct the wrong.
What words say — and it is not always about the written word — is not just about a changing social order, it is also about where a people are headed. “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice,” wrote TS Eliot. To me the appropriate word of the year would be ‘Domicide’ — the deliberate and mass destruction of a homeland to cause intentional suffering, with an overpowering wish that next year’s vocabulary will find a softer and a more empathetic journey.