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2016 words of the year

For good or for ill, this was Donald Trump’s year. Recently, Ideas crunched the headlines of the 1,000 most popular stories on in 2016; in the word cloud above, the size of each word corresponds to how often it showed up. Inevitably, the Republican presidential candidate’s name dominated. In its ubiquity, it needs no further explanation here.

In this edition of Ideas, we examine some of the other terms that defined 2016. Trump’s campaign rhetoric, the missteps of his opponents, and the controversies around his most disreputable supporters loom large. But there was plenty more going on, especially outside of politics: Shiny residential towers proliferated on the Boston skyline. Doctors and health care experts scrambled to deal with a once-obscure tropical virus that terrified expectant mothers and their families. A decade from now, when you’re watching a quiz show or playing a trivia game, the random question about “Zika” or “Pokemon Go,” of “deplorable” or “bigly,” will bring memories of 2016 rushing back.


Sarah Lazarovic for The Boston Globe

Zika (n.)

This year, Zika fought well above its weight class. A tiny virus, carried by a tiny bug, that triggered a global freakout. And then, just as quickly as it began, the crisis was declared over.

Transmitted primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, Zika isn’t normally problematic. Eight out of 10 people infected will not develop any symptoms. An infection can only be confirmed through laboratory tests on blood or other body fluids. No commercial vaccines are yet available.

In July 2015 Brazil was the first country to declare an epidemic with two distinct characteristics: an association between Zika and Guillain-Barré syndrome in adults, and another with Zika and microcephaly in newborns. The Rio Olympics were a huge worry — some athletes and spectators stayed away, scientists called for the Games to be moved or canceled — yet not a single case of Zika was reported during the games. To this day, Brazil is the only country reporting a significant connection between the virus and these two conditions.

But the threat of scores of women giving birth to children with microcephaly in the United States, even without solid empirical evidence, set off alarms, and Puerto Rico was identified as the potential gateway. An epidemic was declared in January. Mass infections throughout the island were imminent, officials warned.

The US government took an aggressive stance in combating Zika; millions were spent to contain, study, and treat the disease.

The epidemic peaked in September, and the number of confirmed cases in Puerto Rico steadily decreased. There were 35,136 cases declared as of Dec. 8, with 67 cases of Guillain-Barré and seven newborns with congenital defects. More than 2,000 pregnant women contracted Zika.

Then in November, the World Health Organization declared an end to its global health emergency, saying, “Zika is now shown to be a dangerous mosquito-borne disease, like malaria or yellow fever, and should be viewed as an ongoing threat met as other diseases are.” There was no explanation for the change of tone.

Meanwhile in the tropics, the mosquitoes keep on buzzing . . . and biting.

— Pedro Reina-Pérez

Sarah Lazarovic for The Boston Globe

leaks (n.)

E-mails from the Democratic Party, hacked by the Russian government and leaked by Julian Assange, not only gave us John Podesta’s tips for making a creamy risotto, but also helped give Donald Trump the White House.

Globally, this was just one of hundreds of consequential leaks this year. In March, the Philippines Commission on Elections was hacked, and the personal information of 55 million people, including passport numbers and fingerprints, was released on the Internet. The next month, a similar leak occurred in Turkey.

In April, over 30 years of confidential legal documents were stolen from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. The information revealed how politicians and businessmen hid their money from the tax man, and sparked scandals in capitals around the world.

Internet activists also targeted the Syrian government of Bashar Assad, leaking sensitive data to undermine its ability to prosecute the civil war. And, in Australia, information on the “at-risk sexual behavior” of half a million people was stolen from the Red Cross. The examples go on.

Around the world, again and again, it became evident that “private” data is increasingly a misnomer, and that leaks are now an essential tool of statecraft, activism, vandalism, and warfare.


Sarah Lazarovic for The Boston Globe

Burkini (n.)

French designer Louis Réard named his 1946 swimsuit the bikini after the Pacific atoll where atomic bombs were then being tested. Seventy years later, a portmanteau — covering bikini and burqa — had its own explosive chain reaction on the beaches of France. Officials in at least 30 municipalities along the Riviera banned the burkini, a type of swimsuit designed to accommodate Islamic traditions of modesty. International criticism was swift, especially after photos of police enforcing the law went viral. But the French population, reeling from a series of recent ISIS-connected attacks, overwhelmingly supported the ban — 64 percent approved, while a further 30 percent were indifferent. By the end of the summer, the ban had made its way all the way to the country’s top administrative court, where it was struck down.


Sarah Lazarovic for The Boston Globe

fentanyl (n.)

The sudden emergence of fentanyl as a deadly street drug got a grim confirmation in April, when the musician Prince died at age 57 from an overdose at his Paisley Park compound in Minnesota. The synthetic opioid, produced by drug cartels in Mexico and China and far more powerful than heroin, has become increasingly common in overdose reports nationally. Fentanyl only showed up in Boston for the first time in 2014; by 2016, according to state statistics, fentanyl was found in 74 percent of overdose death cases in which toxicology testing was available. In some cases, opioid users take a pill they believe to be a different drug, like hydrocodone, that’s actually fentanyl. That may be what happened to Prince; authorities found fentanyl pills at Paisley Park mislabeled as less potent drugs.


Sarah Lazarovic for The Boston Globe

alt- (pref.)

As 2016 closes, the big debate raging on copy desks across the country is whether and how to use “alt-right,” the chosen term of a ragtag band of Internet-savvy white supremacists. In spaces like Reddit and Twitter, they praised Donald Trump, trolled women and ethnic minorities, and turned the cartoon mascot Pepe the Frog into a pro-Nazi symbol. Things got ugly, and a euphemism can only cover up so much. “The term may exist primarily as a public-relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience,” the Associated Press declared in a style note.

The term “alt-right” evokes “alt-rock” and “alt-country,” both of which started out as nerdier, trendier versions of more familiar musical genres. It presents tribalism and racial prejudice as merely a thing that some people are into, just like other people are into bands such as The Decemberists or Wilco. This rebranding of the far right worked, at least up to a point; The Washington Post published a story about the “fashy,” the hip new haircut for dudes who are into fascism.

And yet the “alt-” in “alt-right” hinted at something important about the current political landscape: the perception that large, familiar institutions were losing traction in a way that created an opening for insurgents.

Since the days of William F. Buckley, the conservative movement has usually shown impressive ideological discipline, sticking to an explicit message of free enterprise and small government. But not every conservative, it turned out, embraces global capitalism and looks to Ronald Reagan as a role model. Alt-right thinking draws far more from Pat Buchanan, Jefferson Davis, Vladimir Putin, and — if the one-armed salutes at a recent alt-right gathering have the usual meaning — Adolf Hitler.

Hence the outcry when President-elect Trump tapped Steve Bannon, who boasted of turning Breitbart News into a “platform for the alt-right,” as a White House adviser. Understanding, perhaps, that explicit associations with white-power activists will undermine Trump’s presidency, alt-right figures have distanced themselves from Bannon, calling him “alt-lite.

Meanwhile in Democratic circles, there’s a debate about how to rebuild a party that won the popular vote but collapsed in seemingly reliable Midwestern states. The erosion of union power there has renewed interest in “alt-labor” groups, which mobilize nonunion workers. Hillary Clinton’s loss enhanced the power of a liberal wing led by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — whom Republicans are now trying to tar as the “alt-left.”


Sarah Lazarovic for The Boston Globe

woke (adj.)

Are you woke? This term for being enlightened or aware, particularly about racism, has spread far beyond its roots in the African-American community. The New Yorker recently described “Luke Cage” as “the first woke black-superhero show.” Buffalo Bills fans who supported Colin Kaepernick’s ongoing protest against police brutality were called “the Woke Tailgate” in The Nation. The term has become so common that some are complaining about its overuse, like a Philly Voice columnist who described “How ‘stay woke’ got whitewashed.” As woke evolves — somewhat painfully for early users — it’s also a textbook example of word evolution in the Internet age.

“Woke” has been part of African-American vernacular English since at least the 1960s. A New York Times Magazine article from 1962 is titled “If You’re Woke You Dig It.” The term stayed under the pop culture radar until Erykah Badu’s 2008 song “Master Teacher,” which included the line “I stay woke.” From there, “stay woke” become a rallying cry, especially for the Black Lives Matter movement. Often, #staywoke was used as a hashtag, and “woke” started spreading and evolving.

Like any popular word, “woke” has spawned variations. An article for The Grio is headlined “Lil Wayne proves celebs aren’t created with equal wokeness,” in reference to the rapper’s dismissal of the Black Lives Matter movement. On the lighter side, there’s the “woke bae,” which an oldster might call a progressive hunk. Actor Matt McGorry appears to be the primordial woke bae. McGorry was identified as such in a 2015 Buzzfeed article that praised him for supporting Black Lives Matter and feminism alongside dreamy photos and gifs.

“Woke,” like “hip,” has broadened. Grant Barrett, host of the public radio show “A Way with Words” and author of “Perfect English Grammar: The Indispensable Guide to Excellent Writing and Speaking,” said in an e-mail that the term has moved from “someone who is aware of the true state of racial imbalances in the United States and is doing their part to limit their own complicity and to make others aware” to a more general sense of “someone who is aware of a minor controversy or well-known difference of opinion.” Barrett said the term has also undergone a process which is, unfortunately, called semantic bleaching. Just as “terrible” and “awful” convey hardly any terror or awe, “woke” conveys less wokeness than it did a few years ago.

These changes can feel like yet another example of white culture ripping off black culture. Still, says language blogger Taylor Jones, “it’s probably a positive thing that people want to be thought of as woke.” But wokeness, like so many qualities, isn’t something you need to advertise. Jones says, “. . . we shouldn’t be declaring ourselves woke . . . it’s a compliment you should be giving others.” In other words, if you’re convinced you’re woke, you’re probably not.


Sarah Lazarovic for The Boston Globe

snake oil (n.)

A few years ago, scientists confirmed that snake oil does indeed have some beneficial medicinal properties. But that came too late for the moniker “snake oil,” a catchall term for all manner of malicious miracle cures. It is a term forever tarnished by its association with con men, grifters, and politicians. It was often lobbed this year at Donald Trump, by critics from Khizr Khan to Senator Claire McCaskill.

But snake oil wasn’t always a pejorative. Before government regulations, there were all manner of patent medicines that promised to relieve suffering. At their most harmless, these treatments were expensive bottles of nothing — a placebo before the name. At their worst, they were actively toxic. And at their most mendacious, they were alcohol, opium, or cocaine repackaged as cough syrups, powders, or sarsaparillas. “None of these ‘cures’ really does cure any serious affection, although a majority of their users recover,” wrote Collier’s magazine in an expose that led Congress to regulate the industry at the dawn of the 20th century.

In 2016, we live in a new golden age of miracle cures.

In health care, they’re often called “nutritional supplements” because they can’t be legally advertised as medicines. For instance, Mannatech, which “transforms lives around the world through innovative Glyconutrition products that provide an unprecedented level of wellness, freedom and purpose.” Ben Carson, nominated to be the next secretary of Housing and Urban Development, took flak for his longtime association with the company, which was sued for false advertising.

In personal finance, it’s buying gold in advance of a Weimar-esque rise in inflation that’s always just around the corner. Consider Goldline, the company that was ubiquitous across the conservative media landscape before it was forced to refund millions to defrauded customers.

In politics, snake oil is Donald Trump’s successful run for White House on a series of unkeepable promises, such as a 3,000-mile wall to be built at another nation’s expense.

Yet there’s a good reason that snake oil sells: Buyers are desperate — or believe themselves to be. Those who flocked to Trump’s banner were said to be dying younger, losing ground to minorities, and facing the risk of poverty as never before. These things, they are told, are all the fault of someone else — the government, gay couples, immigrants, trade deals.

And yet Americans are not drafted to fight on foreign shores, forced to work for below a minimum wage, or live without a social safety net, however modest. Refugee crises, political coups, and economic collapses that plague other corners of the globe are distant, non-issues here, despite how proximate they may appear on the news. Violent crime rates scrape the basement of statistical measurement. The government even tries to protect citizens against charlatans hawking miracle cures.

Many people simply suffer from being told that they suffer by those who are selling a cure. Suffering, like fear, is good business because people will do — or pay — anything to make it stop.


Sarah Lazarovic for The Boston Globe

Becky with the good hair (n.)

When Beyonce dropped her sixth album, “Lemonade,” in April, one lyric from her breakup anthem “Sorry” made us prick up our ears: “He better call Becky with the good hair.” We presumed “he” had to be rapper-entrepreneur Jay-Z, the singer’s hubby. But who was this Becky with the good hair? Social media sleuths first pointed at fashion designer Rachel Roy who, rumors suggested, may have gotten too cozy with Jay-Z. Of course, since the Internet is messy like that, some thought the home-wrecking Becky was celebrity chef Rachael Ray, which briefly made her the target for the fierce enmity of the BeyHive, Beyonce’s most hard-core fans.

Whether Becky referred to someone specific or served as an umbrella term for several women, no one was sure, and Beyonce certainly wasn’t telling. This much, however, people believed: Becky is white. For years, “Becky” has been black cultural shorthand for a white woman, prefaced on the idea that Becky is literally the whitest white woman name ever. On the Fox melodrama “Empire,” the Becky concept was even turned inside out when a black record company receptionist named Becky Williams, played by Gabourey Sidibe, is asked, “What type of a black girl named Becky?” She responds, “Oh, my mom’s white.” (On another note, Beyonce’s “good hair” reference evokes a painful issue for black women in a society where white standards of beauty, exemplified by straight hair, are considered more desirable and attractive.)

Perhaps, inevitably, the mystery around Beyonce’s new song soon became a hilarious hashtag for all things Becky, most notably as a way to razz Abigail Fisher, a white woman who sued the University of Texas at Austin after she was denied admission. When the Supreme Court ruled in June against Fisher’s attempt to have the school’s affirmative action policy overturned, she was quickly immortalized on Twitter with a new name: #BeckyWithTheBadGrades.


Sarah Lazarovic for The Boston Globe

rigged (adj.)

What the pumpkin-spice obsession was to consumables in 2016, the “rigged” label was to politics: a vague insinuation at first, appealing to some, dismissed by most. Then, almost overnight, it was everywhere, unstoppable, impervious to sense and good taste.

To hear the nation’s politicos tell it, America is more rigged than a fleet of Tall Ships.

“Wall Street and the billionaire class have rigged the rules,” inveighed Senator Bernie Sanders repeatedly. He deplored not just the “rigged economy,” but the Democratic Party’s bylaws, too. “When we talk about a rigged system,” Sanders fumed, “it’s also important to understand how the Democratic Convention works.” Hillary Clinton agreed with Sanders on the economy (“rigged in favor of those at the top”) — but then, so did everyone else, from right-winger Charles Koch to left-winger Robert Reich.

The race for the White House was a frenzy of rig-talk. The Clinton campaign accused Sanders of “rigging the system.” Libertarian Gary Johnson said the presidential debates were “a rigged game, man.” Jill Stein claimed the whole election was “illegally rigged against the 99 percent.”

But no one let fly the “rigged” charge more frequently and indiscriminately in 2016 than Donald Trump. The economy, the debates, the FBI, the Republican primaries — according to Trump, all of them were “rigged.” So was Election Day (“I’m telling you, November 8th, we’d better be careful because that election is going to be rigged”). So was the day after Election Day: “He certainly would say the system is rigged,” campaign manager Kellyanne Conway was still insisting on Nov. 9.

Will it ever end? The pumpkin-spice derangement seems to have faded over the past couple weeks. If only we could say the same for “rigged.”


Words you should know


biotech rivalry between Greater Boston and Bay Area culminates in legal battle over gene-editing patent

Harambe (n.)

slain Cincinnati gorilla becomes Internet sensation

Pokemon Go (n.)

augmented reality comes to life

drought (n.)

historically dry year in New England devastates farms, lawns

canna-bigotry (n.)

purported bias against users of legal marijuana

bigly (adv.)

Trumpian modifier — or maybe it’s just “big league”?

deplorable (adj.)

Hillary Clinton’s “47 percent” moment: Harsh description of Trump voters backfires

cupping (n., pres. part.)

welts on Michael Phelps’s back highlight latest in exercise pseudoscience

IndyCar (n.)

the Boston auto race that wasn’t

sky cabanas (n.)

hot amenity as Boston’s luxury condo boom reaches its apex