11 Words of the Year from Around the World

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The U.S. words of the year for 2015 included “face with tears of joy emoji,” ismand singular they. But we aren’t the only ones who wrap up the year by thinking about the words that defined it. Here are words of the year from other countries. 


The Swedish Language Council doesn’t just pick one word of the year, but puts out a whole list of the year’s new words. Ögonkramp caught my eye. It means “eye cramp”—something you can get when staring at your phone screen for too long. Also featured were rattsurfa (“wheel surfing,” for using phone while driving), transitflykting (“transit refugee,” for a refugee just passing through the country on the way to somewhere else), svajpa (approximation of English “swipe,” for motion used to select or reject in dating apps), and the verb dumpstra (“to dumpster,” for dumpster diving).


Germany has taken in over half a million refugees this year, making the word for refugees, flüchtlinge, the obvious choice for word of the year. The German Language Council cites not just its political importance, but also its interesting linguistic structure, joining the verb for “flee” with the –ling ending. Because that ending is found in many words with a disdainful or belittling meaning, it has been suggested that geflüchteten (fugitives) might be a better choice. Other finalists were Je Suis Charlie (a statement of support after the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris), mogel-motor (“cheat motor,” in reference to the VW scandal where CO2 emissions were inaccurately measured), and selfie-stab (“selfie stick”).


Denmark’s choice also referred to the large numbers of refugees coming through Europe this year with flygtningestrømme (“refugee flow”), beating deleøkonomi (“sharing economy") and grænse (limit).


Spain also chose to focus on the refugee crisis by making “refugee” its word of the year. Other words considered were chikunguña (a mosquito borne virus that appeared in Spain for the first time this year) and gastroneta (“food truck,” a shortening of gastronomía and camioneta).


In the Netherlands, the Van Dale dictionary group chose sjoemelsoftware (“tamper software”) to refer to the VW scandal, where software was used to cheat on measurement results for carbon emissions. It beat poortjesspringer (“gate jumper,” someone who jumps a turnstile to avoid paying a fare) and je suis… (for phrases coined in solidarity with victims of terror attacks). 


At the annual XYZ Festival of New Words in Le Havre, France, there were two choices for word of the year. Laïcité (“secularity”) and liberté d’expression (“freedom of expression”) were selected for their representation of the “fundamental values of democracy and the republic.” 


Fierce debates about the ride-sharing service Uber after its introduction in Australia brought sharing economy to prominence there this year, leading the Australian National Dictionary Centre to choose it as word of the year. Other words considered were dark web, marriage equality, and lawfare, formed on analogy with warfare, to describe the abuse of the legal system by using it to win political battles.


The Chinese character of the year refers to President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption efforts, which picked up steam this year.


Lianhe Zao Bao, the Chinese language newspaper in Singapore, conducted a poll of its readers, who chose this character as the word of the year. It is the last character in the name of Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who died this year.


The mood in Malaysia was grim this year. Over 14,000 Malaysians responded to a poll by Chinese-Malaysian culture organizations, and while 苦(bitter) was the winner, 捐(tax), 乱(unrest), 跌(crash), 耻(shame), 霾(smog), and 震(quake) were also in the running.


In Japan, the kanji of the year, chosen by a public poll, can stand for “contentment,” “peace,” “safety,” and “security.” It was chosen for its association with various worries about international terrorism and national security bills in parliament, which protesters argued might endanger the peace Japan has enjoyed for decades.