The venerable dictionary’s yearly choice is highly anticipated as it summarizes a whole year into a single word.
As we near the end of another year, year-end lists and stories abound. Spotify has just rolled out a summary of its subscribers’ year in music. News organizations have also released their signature Top 10 listicles, from 10 best books of the year to the 10 destinations to visit next year.
Since Elon Musk’s controversial takeover of Twitter, the blue check mark—once a badge of authenticity—has been commodified. Now, authenticity literally has a price tag.
These are stories many of us look forward to as they put over 300 days in retrospect—arming us with realizations, wisdom, and practical tips—before we face the next 365. Perhaps, there’s no other wrap-up that so comprehensively sums up a whole year so succinctly that it’s just one word—the annual Merriam-Webster Word of the Year.
And “authentic” gets the nod from the definition gods as this year’s top word.
In pursuit of truth
The venerable dictionary’s yearly choice is highly anticipated by many as it summarizes a whole year into a single word. The chosen word usually triggers an onslaught of memories from collective experiences that prove our shared humanity.
The words “vaccine” and “pandemic,” for instance, were the words of the year in 2021 and 2022 respectively, and very few people would dispute these choices.
According to its official website, despite having a high-volume lookup most years, the word “authentic” saw a substantial increase in 2023. This spike, says Merriam-Webster, is driven by stories and conversations about artificial intelligence (AI), celebrity culture, identity, and social media.
The dictionary has several definitions for the word, including “not false or imitation,” “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character,” and “made or done the same way as an original,” among others.
While the struggle against mis-/dis-/mal-information can be traced back to the time of Antony and Cleopatra, the internet has further complicated the fight against fake news. This battle has reached a new peak this year with the rise of AI, making it even harder for people to discern truths from falsehoods. As technology’s ability to manipulate reality improves, what is true becomes even less clear and more muddled, leading us all to search—quite literally at times—for the meaning of authenticity.
With the constant blurring of facts and truths, authenticity, according to Merriam-Webster, is “something we’re thinking about, writing about, aspiring to, and judging more than ever” leading the company to choose the word as the most definitive of 2023.
Authenticity as performance
What makes the push against falsehoods even more daunting is that the mere notion of authenticity has become in itself a performance, in a way tarnishing what is usually seen as a positive word.
And nowhere else is this performative authenticity on full display than in the world of popular culture where celebrities, especially social media personalities, always claim to “being their true selves.” Bag raids, house tours, reaction videos—the need to constantly share their “private” selves to prove they are being authentic has permeated every crevice on the internet, with the insatiable craving of the viewing public fueling a steady stream of this kind of content.
Aside from being a performance, authenticity, then, has also become a marketing ploy.
X, formerly Twitter, has long been a battleground between what’s true and what’s false, one of the last bastions where truth continues to fight against the fictive. Since Elon Musk’s controversial takeover, however, the blue check mark—once a badge of authenticity—has been commodified. Now, authenticity literally has a price tag.
A 20-year tradition
Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski told the Associated Press in an interview that 2023 has given us a “kind of crisis of authenticity.” Perhaps, to soften the bleakness of his statement, he adds, “What we realize is that when we question authenticity, we value it even more.”
With the performativity—and commodification—of authenticity and the seemingly endless struggle against the distortion of truths, should we all the more remain fierce and vigilant in guarding what’s authentic.
Sokolowski, a lexicologist, clarifies that he and his team don’t probe into the reasons people head for dictionaries and websites in search of specific words. They also filter out evergreen searches and those that are likely linked with games like Wordle.
People’s need to constantly share their ‘private’ selves to prove they are being authentic has permeated every crevice on the internet, with the insatiable craving of the viewing public fueling a steady stream of this kind of content.
They, however, look into data on lookup spikes and world events that correlate. In the case of “authentic,” there was no huge boost at any given time, rather there was a “constancy” in interest in the word.
This year marks the 20th year of what has become a popular tradition. “Authentic” follows 2022’s choice of “gaslighting,” another word that has connotations of deception but with a focus on manipulation. “Gaslighting” is a term that originated from a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, wherein a woman complains that the gas lights in her house are dimming while her husband tries to convince her that it’s “all in her head.”
Merriam-Webster’s other top words of 2023, interestingly, seem connected to ‘authentic,’ or, as the National Public Radio, an American non-profit media organization puts it “to at least our perception of identity in a changing age.”
The runners-up for 2023’s top words
rizz: It’s slang for “romantic appeal or charm” and is short for charisma. Merriam-Webster added the word to its online dictionary in September and Sokolowski says it’s been among the top lookups since.
kibbutz: After Hamas militants attacked several of these near the Gaza Strip on Oct. 7, there has been a massive spike in searches for this word which means “a communal farm or settlement in Israel.”
implode: The implosion of the Titan submersible on an expedition to explore the Titanic wreckage in June captured people’s interest worldwide, causing lookups for the word, which means “to burst inward,” to soar.
deadname: Interest has been high in what Merriam-Webster defines as “the name that a transgender person was given at birth and no longer uses upon transitioning.” Charice Pempengco, for example, is Jake Zyrus’ deadname.
doppelganger: Merriam-Webster defines this word derived from German folklore as a “double,” an “alter ego,” or a “ghostly counterpart.” Interest in the word surrounded Naomi Klein’s latest book, “Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World,” released this year.
coronation: There was one huge event of this nature that caused a spike in lookups—King Charles III’s ascension to the British monarchy’s throne on May 6. According to Sokolowski, lookups for the word increased to 15,681% more than the previous year. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the act or occasion of crowning.”
deepfake: The dictionary’s definition is “an image or recording that has been convincingly altered and manipulated to misrepresent someone as doing or saying something that was not actually done or said.” I’m sure we’ve all had an experience this year of being almost—or completely—fooled by deepfake photos and videos.
dystopian: Climate change has made much of the world interested in this word, causing its steady popularity in popular culture through books, movies, and TV series. The dictionary company defines it as “relating to or being an imagined world or society in which people lead dehumanized, fearful lives.”
covenant: Lookups for the word meaning “a usually formal, solemn, and binding agreement” swelled on March 27, after a deadly mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee.
indict: Former President Donald Trump was indicted on felony charges in four criminal cases in New York, Florida, Georgia and Washington, D.C. on top of other lawsuits, causing an increased interest in the word which Merriam-Webster defines as “to charge with a crime by the finding or presentment of a jury (such as a grand jury) in due form of law” or “to charge with a fault or offense.”