Staff Columnist

2019: A snitty year in words

Was wildlife rehabilitator Amber Oldfield providing a community benefit treating sick and injured animals before the cit
Was wildlife rehabilitator Amber Oldfield providing a community benefit treating sick and injured animals before the city of Cedar Rapids insisted she shut down or move due to zoning regulations — even though no one had complained? Oldfield, owner of Linn County Wildlife Rehabilitation, on June 6, 2018, holds Vesta, a red fox she nursed back to health. (The Gazette)

So 2019 was wordy. Many can’t be repeated in a family newspaper. But what were the words that defined the year?

There were inclusive words anchoring the gains of social change in our language. There were words wielded as weapons, and words struggling to define the indefensible. And there were words that didn’t seem quite large enough to describe our global perils. And there was “snitty.”

First, we can check with the usual suspects.

Merriam Webster’s 2019 word of the year is “they,” in its usage as a singular pronoun to refer to a person whose gender identity is nonbinary.

Lookups for “they” on the dictionary’s website increased 313 percent over 2018.

“There’s no doubt that its use is established in the English language, which is why it was added to the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary this past September,” Merriam-Webster said in its announcement.

This has prompted some pushback. But as the White House chief of staff once famously said, “Get over it.”

Also on Merriam-Webster’s list is “quid pro quo,” basically Latin for “something for something,” which has come up ad nauseam during debate over President Donald Trump’s Ukrainian bribery scandal.

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“Impeach” also makes the list, along with “egregious,” conspicuously bad, “exculpate,” to clear from fault or guilt, and, my favorite, “snitty,” a term U.S. Attorney General William Barr used to describe a letter he got from special counsel Robert Mueller.

Truth is, people get snitty when their work is egregiously mischaracterized in an effort to exculpate a prevaricating president. We’re building our word power already, folks.

And leave it to Washington Post columnist George Will to throw “tergiversation” at us in describing U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s statements. It means “evasion of straightforward action or clear-cut statement.” Will got it right.

Over at dictionary.com, the word of the year is “existential.”

“It captures a sense of grappling with the survival — literally and figuratively — of our planet, our loved ones, our ways of life. Yep, heavy stuff,” dictionary.com said in its announcement, pointing to issues such as climate change, gun violence and the threats to democratic institutions.

Runner-up at dictionary.com was “nonbinary.” So it seems dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster were on the same page with words reflecting social change.

Across the pond at Oxford Language, “climate emergency” was named word of the year, although it’s technically two words. We’ll allow it.

All the words on Oxford’s 2019 list are climate-related, including “eco-anxiety,” “ecocide,” “extinction” and “flight shame,” the reluctance to fly due to air travel’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

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The United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper’s 2019 word list included “sadfishing” — when someone uses an emotional issue to draw in a social media audience. So if you’re thinking about posting on your recent bout of tearful flight shame, maybe think twice before sadfishing.

We’re still waiting for Michigan’s Lake Superior State University to unveil its list of words that should be banished from the language in 2020. An announcement is planned for New Year’s Eve. Last year “wheelhouse” topped the banished words list. Good call.

Locally, we got off to a strong start in February.

That’s when the city of Cedar Rapids talked of replacing the city’s flag. The banner had been panned as one of the nation’s worst municipal flags by the North American Vexillological Association. Vexillology is the study of flags, and a mouthful.

But I think the local word of the year is “community benefit.” Hey, if Oxford can do it, so can we.

It’s a term the city uses to describe development projects eligible for tax breaks and incentives that exceed standard guidelines. If you’ve got a project that dazzles in its design, scope and amenities, maybe you can get a 20-year tax break instead of the usual 10 years.

But what about other community benefits?

Wildlife rehabilitator Amber Oldfield was providing a community benefit treating sick and injured animals before the city insisted she shut down or move due to zoning regulations, even though no one complained. There are a lot of folks in Rompot right now unconvinced a rail yard in their backyard is a community benefit.

So it’s this perceived imbalance in the allocation of benefit that often drives cynicism among the citizenry. But it’s certainly not just a Cedar Rapids issue.

Is allowing the state’s water to remain dirty a community benefit? Is cutting taxes when the state can’t afford an adequate mental health care system? Is raising university tuition or lacking the cash to properly monitor elderly care a community benefit? Community benefits have been taking a beating in Iowa while narrow interests are cleaning up. It’s enough to make you snitty, or worse.

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Who really benefits? Too often, it’s some guy with a check and a jet, and not the common good. But here’s to hoping “change” is the word of the year in 2020.

Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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