What do the environment, gun violence, democracy, and a plastic spork have in common? All helped decide Dictionary.com’s 2019 Word of the Year: existential.
Dictionary.com crunches data to select a word of the year. The site has been doing so since 2010.
The word existential has been around since at least 1685. Dictionary.com defines it as “relating to existence.” Most people think of the word as dealing with the meaning of human life.
Searches for existential spiked when 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg talked about climate change as an “existential” crisis, says John Kelly, senior research editor at Dictionary.com. Another spike happened when former Vice President Joe Biden called President Donald Trump an “existential threat.”
Internet searches showed the word cropping up in discussions of the Notre Dame fire, U.S.-China tensions, Big Tech’s privacy problems, and the Hong Kong protests. People also searched the word after the California wildfires, Hurricane Dorian, and mass shootings in New Zealand and Texas.
“We started to see existential in the dialogue beginning in January,” says Jennifer Steeves-Kiss, Dictionary.com’s chief executive officer, “and all the way through the year.”
The idea of existential also came up in pop culture—in the tale of Forky the white plastic spork of Toy Story 4. Forky believes his destiny is the trash until he becomes a treasured toy of kindergartener Bonnie.
Some people see Forky’s journey from throwaway scrap to handmade toy as an example of being in charge of one’s own existence. But many Christians view Forky’s journey differently. They believe Forky changed only because of Bonnie. In real life, dust becomes human, clay becomes a vessel, humans become righteous only by divine intervention. (Genesis 2:7, Jeremiah 18:4)
“Forky. . . can also inspire us to ask big questions about who we are, about our purpose,” suggests Kelly.
Thankfully, God’s word gives clear guidance about every human’s purpose: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)
(The word existential is shown in a dictionary. AP Photo/Jenny Kane)