Just before Christmas, Oxford dictionaries announced their word of the year for 2017: youthquake. For some reason, these annual announcements always attract a lot of media attention here and this time was no different. Articles in a wide range of newspapers explored the reasons why the word, which is defined as ‘a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people,’ had been chosen, and looked at the role that the young had played in politics and elections around in the world, including the UK, where the left-wing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has become incredibly popular with younger voters.
One obvious effect of these announcements is the public debate they provoke, and – predictably – one evening in the pub, Andrew and I ended up discussing what we felt the word of the year should’ve been. Now, while I recognise the importance of choosing a word that has a positive connotation, I felt that youthquake wasn’t exactly new. Perhaps it’s because I grew up obsessed with the 1960s, but I’d often encountered the word in articles about the youth explosion that rocked the world in that remarkable decade.
For my money, the word that kept on popping up last year and that seemed far more symbolic of the current cultural climate was handsy. In October last year, news leaked out about a secret file – a ‘dirty dossier’ – that women who worked in Westminster had compiled and were sharing via WhatsApp. The list named and shamed male MPs who had a history of sexually harassing female employees, and was soon widely available on the Internet. Well-known Members of Parliament were accused of all manner of bad behaviour, and one recurrent complaint was that men had been handsy: handsy with women, handsy at parties, handsy in lifts and handsy in taxis! In other words, they didn’t know when to keep their hands to themselves and were liable to make unwanted sexual advances – and to try and grope women when in enclosed spaces with them
If you grope someone, you touch them sexually in a rough way, especially when the other person does not want to be touched. Countless women have horror stories of being groped by strangers on public transport or groped by bosses at office parties, and the stories about handsy politicians came in the wake of the revelations about sexual predator Harvey Weinstein and the #metoo phenomenon, wherein thousands of women shared stories about their experiences of harassment via social media.
While it’s obviously pretty depressing that in this day and age powerful men still seem to think it’s fine to grope women they work with, the fact that women are fighting back – and coming up with new words in the process – must surely be a good thing.
Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Take one of our summer courses.
- Can you think of any public figures who’ve been accused of being handsy – or worse?
- Do you think groping is a problem where you live? What can be done to tackle it?
- Can you think of a time in your country’s history when there was a youthquake? What happened?
- What’s been attracting a lot of media attention where you are recently? Why?
- Have you noticed any other words or phrases popping up a lot in the last twelve months?
Handsy? That’s bad. Robert Dale, a character in ‘Black Mirror’ Season Four, was only accused of being starey for ogling his female subordinates, and he was a pretty disgusting psycho. So I can imagine how terrible handsy bosses can be.
Sadly, seem to be far more common than many folk would like to admit. Not good, is it.
Interestingly, I hadn’t consciously come across either ‘youthquake’ or ‘handsy’ … but maybe I just don’t read enough of the right kind of journalism. Out of curiosity, I just searched for both using the Monco corpus (a monitor corpus of online news sites) to see what it showed about usage over the past year. ‘Handsy’ seemed to come up in sudden spikes at a handful of points in the year, probably I’d guess, as a result of a quotation by an individual that got reported and rereported. Whereas ‘youthquake’ came up very slightly more consistently throughout the year, although with a few similar spikes too. Neither looking very conclusively ‘popular’ or ‘widespread’, to be honest, but I guess that’s the nature of most ‘new’ words, they take a while to either gain momentum or fizzle out.
My personal favourite for word of the year comes at the ‘handsy’ issue from a different perspective, both acknowledging the problem and suggesting the solution, and it’s American dictionary, Merrium Webster’s choice of the word ‘feminism’. They’re not looking at new coinages, instead they base their choice on the words that get the most look-ups in their online dictionary: https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/word-of-the-year-2017-feminism/feminism
Thanks for this Julie. I realise neither word is particularly widepsread, but thought HANDSY was a perfect shorthand for such instantly recognisable behaviour. As I said, I first encountered it when the leaked WhatsApp doc from the Houses of Parliament group became big news.
Interesting – and heartening (though also simultaneously depressing, if you know what I mean) – to know FEMINISM is on people’s minds again.