The Back Road: Words of the year, 2016-2022

The Back Road: Words of the year, 2016-2022

Andrew Malekoff

There were times as a young reader that I jotted down all the words I did not understand. I then looked up the words, hand-printed the definitions and reviewed them until I learned their meaning.

Words can be captivating.

Searching for meaning and attempting to navigate misinformation (false information with no intent to deceive) and disinformation (misleading information with an intent to deceive), is one of the most important things we can do today, especially living in a post-truth era where the lines can be fuzzy between truth and falsehoods.


Every year since 2003, Merriam-Webster selects a “Word of the Year,” based on what words online dictionary users have been searching most frequently.

The word of the year often captures the zeitgeist of the day – some compelling aspect of the current cultural context.

Merriam-Webster says they track two kinds of word lookups: “perennial words that are looked up day-in and day-out, and words that spike because of news events, politics, pop culture, or sports.”

What does the chosen word of one year portend for the next? Is it a prophecy or omen pointing ahead? The residue of what just passed by? An amalgam of the two? Or, “a wrinkle in time,” as filmmaker Ava DuVernay explained, “a metaphor for what we can all do in our lives.”

To see how recent years stacked up in capturing the time through a single word, I present Merriam-Webster’s top words for the last seven years, 2016-2022.


Merriam-Webster chose “surreal” as its 2016 Word of the Year. In November of that year, reality TV host Donald J. Trump was elected President of the United States.

Surreal was also the most looked up word after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack against America.


The Word of the Year in 2017 is “feminism.” The #MeToo movement advanced a deeper national conversation about women, sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape culture.

How things have changed since.

As the composition of Supreme Court took a dramatic shift to the right, reproductive rights that were the law of the land for nearly half-a-century have been ripped away, compromising millions of women’s wherewithal to secure self-sovereignty, a future, a life.


Topping the charts for 2018 is “justice,” a central theme in of many of our national debates that year including social justice, racial justice, criminal justice and economic justice. Justice is a core concern for Americans, whether it involves local law enforcement battling street crime or federal agencies investigating and prosecuting large-scale corruption, terror threats and political violence. In the end, all Americans want to feel safe and secure and reassured that there is, in fact, a rule of law that no one, regardless of their station in life, will rise above.

THEY 2019

In 2019 “they” was the Word of the Year, which demonstrated that even a seemingly simple personal pronoun can be transcendent.

As Time Magazine explained, “The singular “they” is a pronoun used to refer to a person whose gender identity is nonbinary,” a word that itself was added to the dictionary.

Horrifyingly, LGBTQ+ Americans remain under siege as was so tragically evidenced during six minutes of hate-fueled terror at the Club Q nightclub mass shooting in Colorado Springs on Nov. 19, 2022. Five innocent people were killed and at least 25 more were injured.


It should come as no surprise that the 2020 Word of the Year was “pandemic,” as COVID-19 exploded into our lives leading to untold trauma, tragedy and grief for many millions of people worldwide.

I doubt that the indelible images of refrigerated tractor-trailer trucks parked outside hospitals in New York City will ever leave me. Observing those mobile morgues idling on the street waiting for their human cargo to be loaded was emblematic of one of the darkest times in memory.


“Vaccine,” for obvious reasons, was the Word of the Year in 2021.

For many months the ex-president employed the magical thinking of a toddler (“It will disappear”) to wish away COVID-19, under the guise of not wanting to panic the public. He floated a number of questionable treatments (injecting bleach) and was ambivalent at best about the use of masks for prevention. Although he wasn’t a full-throated advocate for their use, he can be credited with helping to fast-track the manufacture of effective vaccines (Operation Warp Speed) that, ultimately, did save lives.


This year, Merriam-Webster’s word of the year is “gaslighting,” which is defined as, “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage; behavior that’s mind manipulating, grossly misleading, and downright deceitful.”

The essence of gaslighting is best described by comedian Groucho Marx’s line: “What are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?”

Naturally, this brings to mind the dishonest and meritless efforts by the ex-president and his loyalists to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power and overturn the 2020 presidential election by any means possible including violence. Such efforts continue to this day, more than two years later, with the ex-president’s latest gambit an open call to terminate the U.S. Constitution, which would only plunge us further into the abyss of a deeply divided nation.


Moving beyond Merriam-Webster and word of the year convention, I will take the liberty here to select “democracy” as my opening word for 2023, in tribute to three groups that have served us well as America’s guard rails in 2022.

They are the law enforcement officers who defended the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021; members of the bipartisan United States House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on the United States Capitol; and, my fellow Americans who came out and voted in the 2022 midterms, in a collective effort to beat back the insidious advance of authoritarianism.

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

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