Every year the two reigning wordsmith companies, Merriam-Webster, publisher of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and the Oxford University Press, publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary, choose what they think is the word of the year. This year, the Oxford folks chose the word “selfie” as their word of the year. Selfie — those smartphone self-portraits that show up in everyone’s Facebook feed — is an interesting choice. I have to say, it’s not a word I’d consider choosing, but the word is certainly popular, which is why they chose it.
Merriam-Webster chose the word science. Webster’s reason for choosing science was two-fold: first, the word science recorded a 176 percent increase in look-ups on its website last year (which seems like a reasonable scientific measure of success); second, "The more we thought about it, the righter it seemed in that it does lurk behind a lot of big stories that we as a society are grappling with, whether it's climate change or environmental regulation or what's in our textbooks," said John Morse, president and publisher of Merriam-Webster Inc.
I think these two choices are an interesting reflection on our present-day society.
I don’t think I’ve ever taken a selfie with my cellphone — at least not intentionally. Those dual-facing cameras can be tricky if you aren’t paying attention. But the kids I’m around, and I’m sure the kids that you’re around, do it all the time. They’re also taking pictures — of their food, what they’re drinking, what and who they are engaged with, seemingly every minute of the day — and then posting those pictures online for the world to see. They’ve clearly never heard, or simply choose to ignore, the phrase “too much information.”
Too much information brings me to Merriam-Webster’s choice — science. It’s no wonder people these days are so skeptical, and don’t know what and who to believe any more. When I looked up the definition of science at Merriam-Webster.com, I was surprised to see the very first definition listed: “the state of knowing : knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.” That’s pretty vague and a bit troubling. What is “the state of knowing?”
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I know that Rush is the greatest thing musically to come out of Canada. (In your face, Justin Bieber!) I know a good bowl of chili is the absolute perfect food. Most people know global warming is manmade, while others know it is part of the natural rhythm of the world’s weather. You can see the problem — one can know something and still be wrong. (I’m not wrong about chili.) Comedian and social commentator, Stephen Colbert, created a word to describe this type of knowing — “truthiness”— the quality of stating concepts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than the facts.
With today’s ever-on society it is easy to find truthiness. Information bombards us from multi-million sources every single day. A lot of it is just made up garbage, or somebody’s version of “knowing.” This has caused a number of news outlets to print or report things that seemed like the truth, but turned out to be a hoax. Sometimes it is extremely difficult to know what the whole truth is. I’m constantly reminding my children that they can’t believe everything they read on their Facebook newsfeed or in their textbooks, or what their teachers tell them. Although most of what is taught in schools is based on science or knowledge, some of it is based on truthiness. The world is a confusing and contradictory place, made even more so by the information age.
I can understand why selfie and the act of sharing selfies, and all of those other mundane things kids share, has become so popular. No one can question a selfie. No one is going to question that picture of the food you shared from your favorite restaurant. It’s safe. It’s knowable. One could even say it fits Webster’s first definition of science.
If I were Merriam-Webster, I know I'd get rid of that definition.