Defined literally, the word ‘toxic’ is an adjective meaning ‘poisonous.’ It’s interesting, then, that Oxford English Dictionary has chosen ‘toxic’ as Word of the Year for 2018.
The origins of ‘toxic’
While some of us will forever associate the word ‘toxic’ with the 2003 Britney Spears hit, its origins can be traced back much further. First appearing in the English language in the mid-seventeenth century, the word was taken from the Medieval Latin word ‘toxicus’ – meaning ‘poisoned’ or ‘imbued with poison’ – which itself was derived from the classical Latin word ‘toxicum,’ meaning ‘poison.’ This in turn had its origins in the Ancient Greek ‘toxikon pharmakon,’ which was a type of poison used on arrow tips to improve their lethality.
The origins of ‘toxic’ are interesting as the root word ‘toxikon’, which continues to carry the ‘poisonous’ meaning today, was actually derived from the Ancient Greek ‘toxon’ – meaning ‘bow’ – rather than the actual word for ‘poison’ – ‘pharmakon.’
‘Toxicity’ in modern society
The Oxford English Dictionary’s Words of the Year are selected based on the extent to which they “reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year” and whether or not they “have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance.” Perhaps, then, ‘toxic’ is an apt choice, considering its widespread application in modern society.
News and literature from all over the world have referred to ‘toxicity’ in a myriad of forms in the recent past. From media coverage of toxic air, toxic plastics and toxic waste pollution, to toxic relationships and toxic workplaces in crime thriller and tragedy novels, the word ‘toxic’ has found almost universal application as a both literal and metaphorical descriptor of negative circumstances.
Literature is remarkably reflective of the society from which it originates and through news and novel translations we are able to see the interplay of language and contemporary culture in societies all over the world. Unlike other words shortlisted for Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year, such as ‘gaslighting,’ ‘incel,’ ‘overtourism’ and ‘orbiting,’ ‘toxic’ has seen widespread worldwide application.
Although its use extends far earlier than 2018, the word itself has found a particular and regular use in modern society. Throughout 2018, CNN alone has presented more than 600 TV and internet news stories featuring the word, covering topics from Trump to tide pods. In particular, ‘toxicity’ has found prevalence in relation to ‘toxic masculinity’ through recent social developments like the #MeToo movement and the ‘toxic rhetoric’ and ‘toxic agendas’ arising in light of recent US presidential elections and UK Brexit discussions.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “it is the sheer scope of its application that has made it the standout choice for Word of the Year.”
In the words of President of the Oxford Dictionary, Casper Grathwohl,
“Reviewing this year in language we repeatedly encountered the word ‘toxic’ being used to describe an increasing set of conditions that we’re all facing. Qualifying everything from the entrenched patriarchy to the constant blare of polarising political rhetoric, ‘toxic’ seems to reflect a growing sense of how extreme, and at times radioactive, we feel aspects of modern life have become”.
A shift away from toxicity?
It’s not all doom and gloom though, lexicographically speaking at least. This last year has also seen the addition of more than 500 new words to the Oxford English Dictionary including:
‘Burkini’ – “a proprietary name for a type of swimsuit for women which covers most of the body and which is intended to respect Islamic traditions of modesty in dress.”
‘Dylanesque’ – “resembling or reminiscent of Bob Dylan or his work, esp. his songs or records, which are characterized by poetic, often enigmatic, lyrics, a distinctive, abrasive vocal delivery, and music rooted in traditional American styles, such as folk, blues, and country.”
And even the acronym ‘TGIF’ – “Thank God it’s Friday.”
The recognition of ‘burkini’ as an official word is particularly significant considering the controversy surrounding its concept and acceptance in society. Perhaps this recognition of the word and its legitimacy indicates a shift of society’s values, moving towards a more accepting, tolerant and altogether less ‘toxic’ modern culture.
Do you feel that ‘toxic’ deserved its place as 2018’s Word of the Year? Which other English words stood out for you from last year and why? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.