Every year, new words enter the public lexicon, and 2021 was no exception.
Throw out your skinny jeans, Rae Dunn pottery, and graphic T-shirts. They’re all cheugy, a term used to describe someone who is untrendy or trying too hard. The Instagram page cheuglife defines it as “a person who currently follows out of date trends usually stemming from things that were popular in middle school & high school.”
The term was coined in 2013 but gained popularity this year after copywriter Hallie Cain posted a TikTok video about the word that went viral and sparked another chapter in the Gen-Z-millennials culture war. In defending the term, Cain said, “We all have a little cheug in us.”
Indeed, we do. Still, please throw away your beloved “Live, Love, Laugh” sign. And while you’re at it, do you really need to have an “Eat” sign in your kitchen?
Critical Race Theory
Critical race theory does not say all white people are evil. CRT does not try to make children, especially white males, feel ashamed of their race or gender. It is not, as conservatives have falsely claimed, taught in elementary or high schools. It is a decades-old academic discipline that recognizes that systemic racism is ingrained in all aspects of American society. By better understanding the intentional failings of the past and their current impact, changes and laws can be made to rectify racial inequities. And the last thing those fixated on maintaining white supremacy want is the teaching of unvarnished American history.
Here’s a Nixon-era term that’s tanned, rested, and ready for a comeback — and suddenly much in the news, because of a legal tug-of-war over which executive has the privilege. The term applies to the separation-of-powers-rooted right of the president to withhold (or have his appointees and aides withhold) some information from the legislative or judicial branch. It has burst back into the spotlight because former president Trump and his erstwhile aides and associates are asserting executive privilege to avoid cooperating with the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Legal precedent is scarce here, but even that’s a dubious claim. Although a former president has some executive privilege rights, the greater power rests with the current president, and President Biden isn’t supporting Trump’s claim of same. Second, it generally applies to officially employed appointees or aides, not rogues and scalawags in the president’s informal circle — and the period the committee wants to question Steve Bannon about occurred long after he left the administration. So: Why is that privilege being invoked? A private remark Richard Nixon made to his close aides way back during the Watergate investigation perhaps sums it up best: “I want you all to stonewall it.”
It’s just a lively little feature we like to put together at this time of year: a snapshot of the words of the year. When the call for ideas went out in our department on Dec. 6, I didn’t hesitate: “fatigue” leapt to mind. Within minutes, I typed it into the shared document. My editor originally asked us to submit something by Friday, Dec. 17. On Dec. 19, a day off, while absently glancing at work e-mail, I saw my name included on a reminder gently prodding a few of us to hand something in by 2 p.m. on Dec. 20. I sighed and wondered whether I might just send my editor an apologetic note saying maybe I’d skip it altogether, and would she have enough content without me? But here I am, deadline looming, at the keyboard. And I’m not a health care provider, or a home health aide, or a law-enforcement officer, or a grocery store worker, or any of countless other professions who haven’t had the luxury to blink, and I know I haven’t even been remotely tested (in the figurative sense) as so many others have. And this is just a lively little feature we like to put together at this time of year. And I’m in a little cluttered room of my house, barefoot, logged on remotely, wearing the same under-washed sweatshirt I wear most days, as I write this.
The Great Resignation
It’s a nationwide movement, unlike anything the United States has experienced: Millions of Americans are quitting their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and not returning to the workforce. Economists offer many reasons for the Great Resignation: low wages, fear of contracting COVID-19, poor working conditions, lack of child care. Exuberant posts from workers to Reddit’s antiwork channel (“Unemployment for all, not just the rich!”) share screen grabs of text exchanges with their bosses that culminate with a satisfying, “I quit,” and optimism about finding a better job during the nationwide labor shortage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the quit rate in October was 4.2 million — and that wasn’t even the highest monthly rate in 2021. Boggling when you consider employees who quit generally aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits and the average US household has only $5,000 in savings on hand.
The definition of resignation is to surrender. But that’s not what appears to be happening here. Instead, the pandemic that’s disrupted all aspects of our lives, to varying, horrifying degrees, has inspired people to prioritize their well-being — starting with jobs that don’t pay a fair wage or are fraught with unreasonable demands. For many others, it’s as simple as refocusing the wealth of their time and energy and joy on family and friends. It’s about living this one precious life instead of working themselves to death. Perhaps the Great Resignation should instead be called the Great Inspiration.
For years, abortion rights advocates warned that a conservative US Supreme Court would mean the end of Roe v. Wade. In 2021, a 6-3 conservative court got its chance to prove them right when it took up several challenges to recently passed so-called heartbeat bills — state laws barring abortions as early as the sixth week of pregnancy, long before many women know they’re pregnant.
A challenge to Texas’s law, which goes a step further by deputizing citizens to enforce the abortion bans through bounty-hunting civil suits, made a fast track to the high court. Though the court issued a procedural ruling allowing the challenge to proceed, it also let the law stay in place — signaling that there are at least five votes to ultimately uphold it — and to gut Roe in the process.
This has been a banner year for space travel. Three private companies (Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX), along with the Russian and Chinese space agencies, combined to launch human beings past the earth’s atmosphere a record 13 times, surpassing the previous high of 11 launches, in 1985. But there were no human passengers aboard 2021′s most astonishing feat of flight.
On April 19, NASA’s minuscule Ingenuity helicopter rose 10 feet above the surface of Mars, hovered in the ultra-thin Martian air for 30 seconds, and descended safely. In that half-minute, history turned on its hinge: For the first time ever, a manmade aircraft had completed a controlled extraterrestrial flight. Long after the degraded politics and shallow culture of our era are vanished and forgotten, the remarkable engineering accomplishment of those 30 seconds in April will be enshrined in the history books. Like the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk and the landing of Eagle on the moon, Ingenuity’s 30 seconds over Mars pushed the boundaries of human achievement farther than they had ever been pushed before — and held out the promise of so much more to come.
Let’s go, Brandon
How did a chant allegedly cheering on NASCAR driver Brandon Brown become secret code to insult President Biden? Blame it on a well-intentioned NBC Sports TV reporter. While she was interviewing Brown live on camera, fresh off a surprise win in early October, the crowd suddenly started chanting “F*** Joe Biden!” But as she tried to describe the festive atmosphere, she narrated instead: “And you can hear the chants from the crowd … ‘Let’s go, Brandon.’ ” It was either a clueless, genuine mistake or brilliant on-camera improvisation. Regardless, an anti-Biden meme was born. Many merchants, including here in Massachusetts, have capitalized on the viral moment, selling “Let’s Go Brandon” T-shirts, hats, and masks. It’s still unclear why a NASCAR crowd would be insulting Biden so out of context. But that’s probably beside the point — oh wait … there’s no point to any of this. Insert facepalm emoji here.
Facebook likes to dress in borrowed plumes. Over the past two decades, the company posed as the champion of democracy, the defender of freedom of speech, and a knight in shining armor in the battle against disinformation, while simultaneously undermining these very goals through its policies. And whenever it was called out for its misdeeds, Facebook would make cosmetic amends. Like changing its name. When CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in October that the company was rebranding itself as Meta, or “beyond” in Greek, to signify a shift toward a unified digital world — the metaverse — it was clear that the timing was hardly a coincidence. The new name came after a new round of scrutiny, perhaps the harshest one so far. Three weeks earlier, Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen testified before Congress, confirming that the company was indeed meta — beyond regulation, control, and moral values. The rebranding did a poor job of steering public attention away from what Facebook really is: an authoritarian digital superpower single-mindedly focused on expansion.
In early 2021, a buying spree began. Not toilet paper or face masks, but NFTs — nonfungible tokens. These digital assets started showing up in headlines touting million-dollar sales as collectors bought up original files of images and digital artwork. The highest selling NFT was from digital artist Beeple, who sold his work “Everydays: The First 5000 Days” for $69 million. Don’t quit your day jobs just yet — more than 50 percent of all recorded NFT sales were under $200. Even memes have been caught up in the NFT craze. But what’s the point of owning a piece of digital artwork when you can easily save a copy of the file yourself? Think of it as owning an original Monet versus a print of the painting.
An old word that has almost literally taken on a reluctant new meaning, reticent means — and, ahem, has long meant — “not revealing one’s thoughts or feelings readily.” That is, disinclined to talk about something. This headline, from a 2016 story about Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize, is an apt usage: “Bob Dylan, the Newest Nobel Laureate, Maintains His Reticence.”
Now, meaning changes don’t occur overnight or even over the course of year, but in 2021, reticent made awkward cameos in any number of pieces as a stand-in for reluctant. As in this New York Times story about the acquisition of luxury items by the rich: “A number of retailers were reticent to speak about the trend.” One could acceptably say those realtors were reticent on the subject, though even that’s a bit off, in that reticence usually signals a reluctance to discuss something of a personal nature. Here’s a clue to better usage. You can be reticent about something. But when you’ve got a “to” signaling an infinitive construction, better to go with reluctant.
If you show up somewhere with a gun, with the self-assigned mission of protecting the public — and then use that gun to kill someone because you feared they would take it and use it against you — is that self-defense? That was a key legal question in 2021.
Kyle Rittenhouse, a white man, was acquitted after he claimed self-defense in the fatal shooting of two unarmed white men in Kenosha, Wis. Rittenhouse was 17 when he showed up at a Black Lives Matter protest, armed with a semiautomatic rifle, and joined others who said they were protecting property. Bystander videos, which appeared to show Rittenhouse was chased, helped his case. But would the verdict be the same if the shooter were Black? And would a Black teenager even get to trial — or be shot dead on the scene by police? In Georgia, Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was out for a jog, was chased down by three white men who said they were trying to protect their neighborhood from break-ins. Arbery was shot and killed, they said, after he tried to grab one of their guns. A nearly all-white jury found all three men guilty of murder. But would that have happened without a video, taken by one of the defendants, which showed Arbery was unarmed and struggling to run away?
Looking at both cases through the lens of white privilege and racial justice leaves a blurry picture for 2022.
A Washington Post headline declared, “Justice Sotomayor drops the S-bomb.” And, indeed, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor delivered the word as though it were a profanity during her questioning of Mississippi Solicitor General Scot Stewart, as the court heard arguments regarding a 2018 Mississippi abortion law. Pointing out that the case had been brought specifically because of the conservative-leaning makeup of the court, Sotomayor asked, “Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts? I don’t see how it is possible.” But the word resonates like the unrelenting aroma of the Trump years: not only in pending SCOTUS decisions on Roe v. Wade and voting rights, but also racist fictions about critical race theory, and the perpetuation of the Big Lie among Republican elected members of Congress. Donald Trump is gone from the Oval Office, but the stench lingers, now toxic to democracy.