Brow Beat

The Word of the Year for 2016 Isn’t a Word. It’s a Number.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Solarseven/iStock.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Solarseven/iStock.

Oxford Dictionaries chose post-truth. selected xenophobia. The Cambridge Dictionary picked paranoid, and the Collins Dictionary Brexit. Merriam-Webster is coming later this week, but fascism is leading its pack. It’s “Word of the Year” season, when lexicographers and linguists name one word that best sums up the top cultural themes, online look-ups, or language patterns and innovations in the past 365 days. So far, the winning words, capturing the ascendant bigotry and factual relativism that marked so much of the year, aren’t trying to hide that 2016 was pretty bleak—which is why the 2016 word of the year shouldn’t be a word at all. It should be a number: 2016.

Six months in, 2016 had already established itself as a dark year: David Bowie and Prince had died; the Zika epidemic was spreading; the U.K. voted to break away from the European Union; Trump secured the Republican nomination; terrorism struck Brussels and Nice, France; and police brutality had taken hundreds of lives in the U.S. alone. But we counterattacked with self-referential humor. “Is Quentin Tarantino directing 2016?” one flummoxed tweeter reacted. “Have we tried unplugging 2016 waiting 10 seconds and plugging it back in?” another joked. BuzzFeed rounded up other responses, including riffs on presidential campaign slogans: “Giant Meteor 2016: Just End It Already.” In trying to wrap our heads around 2016’s all-reason-and-logic–defying onslaught of tragedy and absurdity, we objectified the year. We gave it a shape and form, likening it to a melodrama, a malfunctioning machine, an unstoppable meteor, anything to get some small grasp on the year’s surreal and hellish parade of events.

But as 2016 mercilessly pressed on, 2016 stopped being an object and became a subject. Social media often figured 2016 as a character in imaginary dialogues. Here’s how a Tumblr user dramatized one particularly gut-punching death:

2016: Alright, fuck you, I’m killing everyone you like.

Me: Fine, we’re eight months in. I’ve built up a soul-callus. I’m immune to your evil, 2016. There’s nothing more for you to take.

2016: *Leans in* What about Gene Wilder?

Me: You son of a bitch.

Others online addressed 2016 directly, including widespread wisecracks that anthropomorphized the year as some hopeless trainwreck of a college roommate: “Go home, 2016, you’re drunk” and “Go back to bed, 2016.”

In a similar vein, a meme made the rounds: “Dear 2016: Y U NO END SOON?” Columnist Daniel P. Finney penned an open letter to 2016 in the Des Moines Register: “Dear 2016: You are the worst year ever, and here’s why.” Music comedians Flo & Joan swearily serenaded all the horrible doings of the year in “The 2016 Song.” And John Oliver—as the climax to a star-studded, man-on-the-street tongue-lashing of the year, as if it were personally responsible for all the ills that transpired—blew up a giant 2016 in an arena as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” crescendoed in the background. “Ode to Joy” indeed: We apostrophized 2016 as some anti-muse in our anti-odes, shouting out to the abstraction as if it were some Olympic god that would deign lend an ear to our petty, mortal pleas: “O, 2016, be not proud” or “2016, thou marble-hearted fiend!” As one tweeter warned: “STOP SAYING 2016 CAN’T GET ANY WORSE. IT CAN HEAR YOU.”

But for all our grandiose exclamations, we also used 2016 like a commentary hashtag—and not merely as #2016. In asides on the NPR Politics Podcast, reporter Sam Sanders often chalked up unexpected or unprecedented events to “2016.” Outside politics, 2016 was evolving into a figurative, catch-all hashtag, too. A picture of a great white shark launching itself several feet above the ocean surface? “Yep. That’s 2016 for you.” A random factoid about a fancy word, anamorphosis, a distorted image that is clear only when viewed at a certain angle? “… otherwise known as 2016.” Trivia, images, headlines, videos, GIFs: We filtered all the mundane ephemera of our digital lives, newsy or not, through our collective notion of 2016 as a shitty year.

So ingrained had 2016-cum-terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad-year become in our broader consciousness that it came to stand in for something larger than itself: 2016-ness. On Election Day, British writer Owen Jones captioned a GIF of a mushroom cloud: “Just how 2016 is 2016 prepared to be?” He added later, when the early results were favoring Trump: “2016 currently thinks there is ample 2016 to go. 2016 is currently saying ‘heyyyyy! Look how 2016 I can possibly be!’ ” In these tweets, Jones not only treated 2016 as a person or thing but also as an adjective: how 2016, as if 2016 were some attribute something could possess. Commenting on a parody story that Oxford Dictionaries actually designated clusterfuck as its Word of the Year, lexicographer Katherine Martin pushed the descriptive possibilities of 2016 further. She offered dumpster fire as the “more 2016-y term.” Exactly what quality 2016 is needs defining, but “the state or condition of being a clusterfuck, dumpster fire, mushroom cloud, trainwreck, or all of the above” is a good start. (German, of course, already has a word for 2016-ness: Weltschmerz, or “world-pain,” the depression one feels when the world as it is doesn’t reflect the way it should be.)

As crappy as the year has been, 2016 still deserves our recognition as word of the year. In shifting from numeral to noun, discourse marker, and adjective, 2016 shows off linguistic creativity. In playing with the rhetorical trope of apostrophe, 2016 exhibits literary value. Why just settle for post-truth, xenophobia, paranoid, Brexit, or any one phenomenon when 2016 encapsulates them all? But the ultimate merits of 2016 are social. Together, we endured 2016’s steady stream of world-historic awfulness. And together, we processed its horrors in the most 2016 way we know how: resilient humor, irreverent irony, and an unending torrent of hashtags, hot takes, memes, and metacommentary on 2016 itself.