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OPINION

2019 Words of the Year

The words that got under our skin in 2019.

Favor

Could you do me a favor? I don’t have time to walk the dog this morning. Can you?

Hey, I need a really big favor. I just got a new iPhone. Can you help me set it up?

We are asked — or ask — for favors every day. Mom, can you pick me up at the airport? Can you drive me to the doctor’s office? Can we move the time for the interview?

For the most part, the requested act of kindness is delivered out of love, friendship, or professional duty. Nothing is really expected in return, except a thank you.

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Sometimes a favor is done without an ask; snow is shoveled from a neighbor’s driveway without anyone speaking a word. Sometimes there’s a sarcastic edge to the request: Could you do me a favor and not ask me about my day?

And sometimes, there are favors that are impossible to refuse. They come from people with immense control over our lives — like the president of a powerful country talking to the president of a much weaker one, who desperately seeks something in return. Something like $391 million in military aid and a visit to the White House.

It goes like this: “I would like you to do us a favor though. . . . I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine. . . . Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible. . . . The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. . . . It sounds horrible to me.”

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Actually, that’s not a favor at all. For a president, that’s an impeachable offense. — Joan Vennochi

Impeachment

Impeachment is hardly a household word with a widely understood meaning, which made it easy prey for President Trump and his cronies to distort as the president was impeached in December. One of the fusty words in the Constitution (emoluments? attainder?), impeachment was borrowed from English legal tradition and means, roughly, to accuse an official of wrongdoing.

It’s not a trial and it’s not a final verdict, but that didn’t stop the president from accusing Democrats of denying him “due process” during the House’s impeachment hearings. His chance to defend himself, though, is supposed to come in the next step, a trial in the Senate. But now that proceeding is up in the air: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is waiting for assurances from Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell that the Republican majority Senate will actually conduct a real trial before she sends the articles of impeachment to the other chamber. Impeachment happens so rarely — this is only the third time in America’s history that a president has been impeached — public confusion about what exactly it means is forgivable. But the GOP Senate’s unwillingness to perform its part of a constitutional process isn’t. — Alan Wirzbicki

Naruto Run

In politics, 2019 felt like a year of fiercely held fictions shaping reality. A whimsical variant on that theme blew in over the summer, when a Facebook post invited people to storm the gates of Area 51, the notorious site in the Nevada desert where — as conspiracy theorists had long suspected and then the Defense Department finally admitted in 2017 — the US government had run part of a $22 million program to research UFOs. Soon, more than a million people claimed they would raid Area 51 in mid-September to see what some fringe believers insist is there: detained aliens.

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“We will all meet up at the Area 51 Alien Center tourist attraction and coordinate our entry,” the post declared. “If we naruto run, we can move faster than their bullets. Let’s see them aliens.”

That’s when many of us got our first exposure to the Naruto run and its namesake, a character created by Japanese manga artist Masashi Kishimoto who sprints with chest forward and arms flung straight back. While most of the people who spread the meme and pledged to attend the raid seemed to get the joke, a few dozen people actually showed up at the Air Force facility, at least one of whom was captured doing the Naruto run by a news crew. The incident befits an era when people confuse conspiracy theory with fact and Internet meme with in-the-flesh activism.

Bina Venkataraman

The Squad

It wasn’t that long ago that the only “squad” anyone talked about was Taylor Swift’s high-powered gaggle of gal pals. “Squad goals” became a catchphrase; it meant, Swift explained, being with women who “motivate you, thrill you, challenge you, and inspire you.”

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So when four Democratic congresswomen-elect — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar — emerged from a freshman orientation meeting in November 2018 and posed for a snapshot that landed on Instagram, it needed only a one-word caption: “Squad,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. The photo went viral and got tons of love.

Alas, the new squad’s goals were nothing like Swift’s. The four lawmakers quickly became both source and target of considerable ill will. From them came anti-Semitic sneers about Jewish “Benjamins” (Omar) and dual loyalties (Tlaib) . . . an accusation that Speaker Nancy Pelosi was “disrespectful” to “women of color” (Ocasio-Cortez) . . . a berating of racial minorities who don’t toe the progressive line (Pressley). Directed at them were equally scornful insults. President Trump, seething at “progressive Democrat congresswomen,” urged them to “go back” to their “crime-infested” native countries. “These are people that hate our country,” he said.

The Squad doesn’t hate America. But like Trump, it makes America more angry and acrimonious. We should have stuck with Taylor’s squad. — Jeff Jacoby

Narrative

In an era of alternative facts, the term “narrative” is inching dangerously close to becoming a synonym for “truth.” Everyone has his or her own narrative — a version of events that comports with their belief system or bias. The word is ubiquitous in political campaigns, so now is a good time to remember that “narrative” only means “story” — a tale we tell ourselves and others. Special thanks to Russia expert Fiona Hill, who used her congressional testimony in the impeachment hearings to warn against buying into a discredited conspiracy theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 presidential election. With linguistic precision, she dismissed the debunked theory as “a fictional narrative.” — Renée Loth

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Boar on the Floor

In its seven seasons, “The West Wing,” with its depiction of a liberal presidency, became a sort of antidote — for the left, at least — to the George W. Bush years, giving liberals a refreshing parallel political universe. HBO’s “Succession,” a portrait of one deliciously vicious family’s fight to keep their mitts on their conservative media empire, is less an antidote than a funhouse mirror, held up to the worst in our nature, our cruelest tendencies, our willingness to do anything we can get away with to stay on top.

The third episode of the standout second season provided a peak perverse moment: the bizarre game of “Boar on the Floor,” in which patriarch Logan Roy (played by Brian Cox) compels some members of his inner circle to wrestle on their hands and knees while sausages are tossed at them, in order to root out who among his yes-men has betrayed him, or perhaps to inspire fear in everyone else in the room, or just for the nasty hell of it. As one character asks: “You think I have a rational explanation for this?” And, lest we forget, there’s always a parallel political universe: Think of the GOP yes-men playing verbal Twister to defend President Trump against impeachment. They don’t know how easy they have it. Then again, maybe they do. — Matthew Bernstein

They

In 2019, a new awareness of gender fluidity and old concerns about grammatical patriarchy combined to create a solution for an age-old prose problem. To wit, what to do in a sentence when the subject is singular but of unspecified gender (think: ”one” or “anyone” or “everybody” or “a person”) and a pronoun is required later in the sentence. Example: “If one wants to take part, ( ------) must submit an application by month’s end.” The traditional dictate was to use the male pronoun “he.” But that is both exclusionary and assumptive. On the other hand, “he or she” is inelegant and ungainly. “S/he,” meanwhile, looks like a typo or a lean-to. Enter a newly versatile “they.” It is both natural to speech and nattily gender-neutral. And as The New York Times reports, it’s now officially recognized by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which adds that it can refer to “a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” If anyone doubts the utility of the new usage, they should try it. They’ll like it. — Scot Lehigh

Side door

When William Singer, the private counselor at the heart of the college admissions scandal, appeared in federal court in Boston to plead guilty to fraud and racketeering charges this year, he explained that’d he’d built a “side door” for wealthy families into some of the country’s top universities — bribing proctors to fix standardized test scores and creating fake athletic profiles for students who’d never played a sport. There is a “front door,” he explained, for a student who “just does it on their own,” a “back door” for families who make large donations but have no guarantee their children will win admission. “And then,” he said, “I created a side door that guaranteed families to get in.” An already ugly process had gotten even uglier. The “side door” was, at once, a stunning symbol of how far the well-off will go to warp the system — and no surprise at all. — David Scharfenberg

Chiefy

A neologism that surfaced during the vetting of candidates to fill Anthony Kennedy’s vacant chair on the Supreme Court. According to Ruth Marcus’s new book “Supreme Ambition: Brett Kavanaugh and the Conservative Takeover,” one influential Republican aide to Senate Judiciary chairman Charles Grassley (R- Iowa) viewed nominee Kavanaugh as “too chiefy,” i.e. too much a jurist in the Deep Establishment mold of Chief Justice John Roberts. In the view of right-wing firebreathers, it’s a short jump from “chiefy-ness” to full-blown “Souteration,” i.e., a conservative gone moderate. Heaven forfend! — Alex Beam

Cancel

Perhaps the earliest known usage of “cancel,” as in boycotting someone who has said or done something disreputable, appeared in the 1949 musical “South Pacific.” In “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” a woman sings, “Cancel him and let him go.” That term reached its cultural apex, especially on social media, in 2019, mostly as a way of calling out racists, misogynists, opponents of LGBTQ rights, and immigration foes. It was a small but necessary step toward public accountability, a weapon turned against those traditionally empowered in a nation that has attempted to cancel entire races and communities, then tried to cancel the history of its own transgressions. — Renée Graham

Self-licking ice cream cone

In a Washington Post expose detailing officials’ private doubts about the Afghanistan war, Army counterinsurgency adviser Colonel Bob Crowley observed, “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.” What Crowley meant was that the US government’s biased reporting in Afghanistan created a deceptive, positive feedback loop.

Thus “self-licking ice cream cone” joins other colorful images for willful self-deception: “Believing your own press clippings”; “Smoking your own weed”; and “Eating your own dog food.” In high-tech circles, “dogfooding” is not a pejorative term. According to Wikipedia, both Hewlett-Packard and Mozilla launched separate “Project Alpos” — testing their own products by using them in-house. — Alex Beam

OK, boomer

Generational conflict is nothing new, but it heated up this year with the phrase “OK, boomer,” an eye-roll from younger generations who think that baby boomers just don’t get it. For Generation Z and millennials, boomers don’t understand their concerns about such issues as climate change, crushing student loan debt, school shootings, and employment prospects. The meme went viral and even made it to the New Zealand Parliament, where a 25-year-old lawmaker uttered it in response to heckling from an older colleague. Many boomers took offense to "OK, boomer,'’ with the AARP labeling it ageism. They seem to have forgotten that it was their generation that lived by mantra, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” — Marjorie Pritchard

Latinx

Latinx” began as an attempt at inclusion a few years ago but quickly became a flashpoint of controversy among people of Latin American heritage. Pronounced “La-teen-ex,” the term is supposed to be a gender-neutral, nonbinary version of “Latino” and “Latina” and is preferred by younger US-born populations. But intense debates around its use persist. A quick roundup of the objections: It’s a made-up word that anglicizes and debases the Spanish language, which is unavoidably gendered; it’s too hard to pronounce; it’s a linguistic aberration invented by woke gringos; plus, according to a very narrow and problematic survey, nobody uses the term. Ultimately, the controversy underscores a decades-long challenge: how to define, in a homogenous fashion, a group that is made up of thousands of complicated identities — Chicanos, Nuyoricans, Puertorriqueños, Domincanas, Cubanas, Afrolatinos, and so on. Sure, what we call ourselves, collectively and individually, matters. And while it feels awkward and imperfect for some, it looks like Latinx is here to stay.

— Marcela García

Other Words of the Year: Peloton, Quid Pro Quo, Orange Line, Normies, Greta Thunberg, Vaping, Perfect