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The Words That Defined 2016

The language we used was a reflection of our dark, disturbing year.

David McNew/Getty Images

The words and phrases that gain cultural currency reflect the times that birthed them. In 2015, a year that has rapidly taken on the sheen of a much more innocent era, Oxford Dictionaries announced that its word of the year was “emoji.” But in 2016, the words we used acquired a sinister urgency. Perhaps this is because our president-elect prefers to communicate in 140 characters or less, adding a blunt edge to the most familiar words. With the help of an exclamation point, “sad,” for example, has transformed from a state of feeling to a rude taunt.

Exactly how these words came to govern our thoughts and conversations remains a mystery even to those who popularized them. They almost seemed to have a life of their own. In December, Donald Trump recounted the origins of one of his favorite phrases, “drain the swamp,” to an audience in Des Moines, Iowa.

It’s funny how that term caught on. ... I told everyone I hated it. Somebody said, “Drain the swamp.” I said, “Oh that’s so hokey, that is so terrible.” I said, “All right I’ll try it.” So like a month ago I said, “Drain the swamp.” Place went crazy. Then I said it again. Then I started saying it like I meant it. And then I started loving it. And the place loved it. Let’s drain the swamp.

Words themselves became talking points. We argued about what they meant, who they belonged to, and how to use them. Was it accurate to call young neo-Nazis—now with internet savvy!—the “alt-right”? Or should we choose a phrase with the weight of history, such as “white supremacists”? “Nasty woman” was uttered by Trump under his breath during the third presidential debate as an insult and affront to Hillary Clinton—so of course women made it their own, putting it on t-shirts and tote bags, wearing them in defiance.

In his seminal 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell accused English-language speakers of possessing the “half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.” If Orwell was right, then these words didn’t flourish independently of our will. Indeed, this year proved to be a banner year for language as instrument. Every week there seemed to be a new word that legitimized the unbelievable, or that helped us make sense of our insane times. Whether you agree with their definitions or not, below are the words we couldn’t escape this year.


White supremacy was the alarming breakout phenomenon of 2016, and a slew of terms emerged to ensure that supporters and haters alike could describe it. Coined by white supremacists and nurtured by media outlets, the term “alt-right” surged in popularity during Trump’s campaign and reached peak popularity after Trump appointed Steve Bannon, former chief executive of the alt-right haven Breitbart News, as his chief strategist. Richard Spencer, founder of the National Policy Institute and face of young white nationalists, described the term as “a movement of consciousness and identity for European people in the 21st century.” Others, like the website ThinkProgress, refused to use the term, saying it put a hip veneer on “hidebound racist movements such as the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan.”


Before September 9, 2016, the word “deplorable” lived a quiet existence. According to Google Trends, it was rarely searched, its interest score hovering at a humble one out of a maximum of 100. It was also mostly used as an adjective. But for a week after Clinton’s now infamous “basket of deplorables” line, the word’s interest score shot up to 100. According to Merriam-Webster, deplorable describes something “deserving of censure or contempt.” But thanks to Clinton, the word took on new meaning. Memes emerged comparing Trump’s deplorables to the cast of The Expendables. Facebook pages heralded the deplorables as champions against political correctness. The word became a sort of catch-all term on the right for “not all heroes wear capes.” Twitter users added the word to their account names, so “Danny” was now “Deplorable Danny.” And even though Clinton expressed regret for using the term, no one cared. It did not belong to her, it belonged to the people.

Fake News

It used to be called lies or propaganda. But in an age when the appearance of reputable news websites can be replicated with ease, we needed a new word for it. Interest in fake news peaked after Clinton’s surprising defeat, which was partly blamed on uninformed voters who believed all kinds of conspiracy theories about the Democratic candidate. “Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook,” the blog Select All declared. Suddenly, there was concern that students would not be able to differentiate between fake news and real news. Guides were created to encourage “media literacy.” The rise in fake news has had tangible consequences: Look no further than the man who fired a weapon inside a D.C. pizzeria while he was “self-investigating” a story that, you guessed it, turned out to be fake news.

False Equivalence

This was the cry from the heart of liberals despairing at media coverage that erroneously equated Trump’s disqualifying, morally heinous flaws with Clinton’s run-of-the-mill ones. Many argued that false equivalence made it seem as though Trump, who proved time and time again to be racist, sexist, and generally offensive, was a legitimate candidate—or at the very least, just as bad as his political opponent.

Nasty Woman

“Nasty woman” came out of nowhere. In the final debate, just as Clinton prepared to answer a question about Social Security, Trump leaned into his microphone and muttered, “Such a nasty woman,” before leaning back, cocking his head, and pursing his lips. Clinton, unfazed by the insult, completed her response. For her critics, the phrase captured the evil that Clinton embodied. For others, it epitomized the misogynistic tenor of Trump’s campaign. The phrase became the subject of think pieces that thoughtfully considered what it meant to be a woman in a position of power—a threatening figure in the fragile male hierarchy. Clinton supporters found solace in the phrase, commandeering it and blessing it with new meaning: A nasty woman was someone who was strong, independent, and definitely voting for Hillary Clinton.


The election left many searching for the proper vocabulary to cope with what had just happened. “This isn’t normal” became a rallying cry, as well as a stand against the mainstream acceptance of Trump’s odious positions. Normalization is saying yes to racism, sexism, and homophobia. It is saying yes to deplorable and offensive behavior. And it is saying no to those who believe differently, reaffirming that our definition of normal in this country most often comes from one dominant group. As Hua Hsu noted in an essay for The New Yorker, “‘Normal’ means different things to different people.”


In 1770, John Adams asserted that facts are stubborn things. But what happens when we collectively decide to abandon facts and evidence? Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as its word of the year, defining it as a condition “in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” It didn’t matter that Trump was, according to the facts, unqualified to be president—he promised to make America great again. At this rate, who knows what 2017 will have in store? Perhaps logic will be the next to go.


This has been a staple of Trump’s vocabulary since at least 2012, when he claimed the Emmys were rigged because his show, The Apprentice, did not win. He leaned on the word again to express outrage at Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss to Barack Obama. During his campaign, he claimed the system was rigged when the FBI decided not to recommend charges again Hillary Clinton, then once more when he lost the Wisconsin primary. During the final months of the election, he began suggesting that, if he lost, the election was rigged. The word was popular on the Democratic side as well, with Bernie Sanders claiming the economy was rigged in the favor of the rich.