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Dictionary.com Chooses “Existential” as its Word of the Year

2019 has undoubtedly been an eventful year around the world. This year alone, an impeachment inquiry against the President of the United States began, and the U.N. issued a dire warning about the threat of climate change. Fears about climate change were exacerbated by a number of extreme weather events, including a devastating hurricane that destroyed parts of the Bahamas, a historically intense flood in Venice, and massive forest fires in both California and the Amazon. And in the third year of Donald Trump’s presidency, many in the mainstream media, including experts on the Constitution and American history, have publicly worried about the perhaps-irreparable damage the Trump administration is doing to the institutions that preserve democracy. Hong Kong has been besieged by months of violent pro-democracy protests as the city fights against an authoritarian government, and the government of the U.K. has plunged into chaos as Parliament struggles with carrying out Brexit. Given the tumultuous nature of the events of 2019, it’s no surprise that Dictionary.com chose “existential” as its word of the year.

Top searches on Dictionary.com this year include “polar vortex,” “stochastic terrorism,” and “exonerate,” reflecting, according to the website, a “broader theme of threat and crisis reflected … in culture and news.” But the website ultimately chose “existential,” one of its top searches, as the word that best sums up the year, as it “captures a sense of grappling with the survival—literally and figuratively—of our planet, our loved ones, our ways of life.”

“Existential” is an adjective with two primary definitions. The first is “of or relating to existence,” and Dictionary.com fittingly provides the example sentence, “Does climate change pose an existential threat to humanity?” The second definition relates to philosophy, as the word can also mean “concerned with the nature of human existence as determined by the individual’s freely made choices.”

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Both definitions of the word, as Dictionary.com points out, apply to 2019 in different ways. The website points out that “existential” is often used when “the fact of someone or something’s being—its very existence—is at stake,” and the word was frequently used this year in connection with news events around the world, from the extinction of species due to climate change to the potential collapse of the institutions that allow for civilized life.

The more philosophical definition applies to 2019 in a more abstract sense, as rapid developments and changes around the world are connected with a sense of evaluating the world in a different light. Existentialism, the philosophy to which the word refers, “affirms out individual agency in making meaningful, authentic choices about our lives.” The word is also used in this context in the phrase “existential crisis,” a psychological episode that leads a person to question the meaning of their life and of existence generally.

Dictionary.com points out that searches for the word “existential” increased dramatically during the year’s most notable news events. Politicians have used the word to describe the threat of climate change, particularly in the aftermath of natural disasters. The word has also been associated with this year’s several episodes of gun violence, particularly in the context of mass shootings. Lastly, the word has been applied to democratic institutions, notably in the case of Joe Biden, who described Donald Trump as “literally an existential threat to America.” Other popular search terms, including “exonerate” and “quid pro quo,” demonstrate a strong global interest in political matters.

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While the website’s word choice certainly seems bleak and gloomy, Dictionary.com also points out that the word can apply to 2019 in a positive sense. In popular culture, humor of an existential nature has proliferated, as in the examples of the sitcom The Good Place, with deals with weighty concepts like death and the afterlife in a humorous manner, and even the animated film “Toy Story 4,” in which one of the main characters is an “existential spork.” 

By choosing the word “existential” to sum up the experience of living in 2019, Dictionary.com observes that this time has led many of us to think about the deeper problems in life, and contemplate many of the ultimate questions that have been pervasive throughout human existence. But the philosophy of existentialism gives us occasion for hope, as existentialist philosophy recognizes the human potential of agency, which allows us to take control of our lives even in a bleak or purposeless environment by the power of our individual choices, which define the parameters of our lives. 

2019 was a year of tremendous change for the world, much of which has been fundamentally negative. But times like these also grant us the opportunity to take a step back, look at the big picture, and determine what really matters in our lives and how we should spend our time and energy. During bleak times like these, doing so is perhaps necessary for a meaningful and fulfilling life.