Each year there are moments that define us–in news, in politics, and in culture. And then there are moments that change the way we think and speak. Those are the language moments. The words and phrases that change the results of a debate or an election. The messages that shape brands and define movements. And that’s what we focus in on each December when our team of language strategists scours business news, pop culture, social movements, politics, and music to identify the messages that truly defined the year.
As we reviewed the various messages around the globe, we realized that this year was especially challenging. We are a nation and a world divided. It wasn’t all negative though—some moments made us laugh (often in disbelief), others made us think, and a few made us question everything. It was a year we will never forget, and there is one thing we know for sure: this year is one that will go down in the history books as anything but boring. And so, without further ado… Here are the top Language Moments of 2018.
1. The language mystery of the year.
One of the great language mysteries of our time had us all wondering, how is it possible to hear the same word completely differently than someone else? And while it was fun to debate, the implications are much broader. Can we hear the same words and take away something entirely different? Absolutely. Consider what you hear when I say Border Wall. Some hear security and protection while others hear Un-American and tragic. Same word. Different meaning… But back to the earlier debate. Was it Yanny or Laurel? Personally, I heard Laurel.
Language Moment: Yanny vs. Laurel
2. The language that stumped Congress.
There have been testimonies before Congress that have stumped us all this year—but in once instance, the tables were turned. When Mark Zuckerberg went before congress to testify about thorny issues related to the election and Facebook privacy, we were all left wondering: does congress even understand the internet? Zuckerberg’s quizzical response perfectly represents something much larger – a lack of respect for and trust in our governing bodies. It used to be that we expected Congress and government to fix the problems we face as a society, now we aren’t so sure they even understand how businesses operate.
Senator: How do you sustain a business model where users don’t pay for your service?
Mark Zuckerberg: Senator, we run ads
3. The language that defined the immigration debate.
Whether you are pro-immigration or not, one word took on a whole new meaning his year: “caravan”. The term defined the immigration debate through the midterms. It was a word that we heard over and over again- and one that stayed with us through the year. If you are pro-border wall, the caravan was a symbol of why the wall was needed. If you are anti-border wall, the caravan became a symbol of the inhumanity of keeping the refugees out. Either way, you can be sure that the term “caravan” no longer conjures up the image of a minivan.
Language Moment: Caravan
4. The language that took the House.
Healthcare was one of the hottest issues for voters heading into the midterms, with the economy and jobs not far behind. The Republicans focused on the economy and immigration while the Democrats zeroed in on healthcare. In fact, Democrats running promised two things in more than 52% of the advertising – 1. Coverage for pre-existing conditions and 2. Medicare For All. And while many might think that the reason Democrats won in November was because it was a referendum on Trump, studies by the Kaiser foundation and exit polls told us that resist alone didn’t drive folks to the polls.
Medicare For All Preexisting conditions
5. The language that divided the world.
President Trump proudly declared himself a nationalist. President Macron warned that we should never confuse patriotism with nationalism. The rest of us thought we would never hear a President talk about nationalism with pride again. Words over time take on new meanings. And for much of the 20thcentury the term Nationalism was equated with revolutions and racist beliefs – whether it was in Nazi Germany or in the 1960s. But this year, the term is taking on a whole new meaning. For some it still means a dangerous form of xenophobia, while others are looking at it as a form of real and true Patriotism.
Language Moment: Nationalism Patriotism
6. The language that defined the midterms.
Who was going to win in the midterms? Was it the Democrats or Republicans? Was it going to be a blue wave? A red wave? A blue ripple? A blue tsunami? The language of red and blue was being used all the time in early November – but as election day recounts turned the day in to a week, one thing became clear. It was the blue wave that took over the house.
Language Moment: Blue Wave
7. The language that will stick with us.
The Kavanaugh hearings brought up a lot of emotion. We heard from Christine Blasey Ford about her vivid memories of the night in question. We heard from Kavanaugh about his love for beer. We heard from Spartacus, I mean Cory Booker. And, we heard Lindsay Graham tell Kavanaugh that “You’ve got nothing to apologize for.” But of them all, the one language moment that is stuck in our brains is Ford’s gut-wrenching account of a traumatic experience. Her portrayal of the event has left a lasting picture in all of our minds—and shows the power of language to tell a story, as hard is it may be to share.
Language Moment: Indelible in the hippocampus
8. The language that could change the course of history.
If 2017 was the year of impeachment, 2018 is the year of indictment. And don’t expect it to go away any time soon. The list of indictments related to the Mueller probe is long – Papadopoulos, Manafort, Rick Gates, Mike Flynn, Richard Panedo, Michael Cohen, and the list goes on… the question now is – will the President himself be indicted? The debate about whether a sitting President can be indicted or not is raging. Some say yes. Some say no. But as the Southern District of NY US attorney and the Mueller investigations continue, we can expect to hear a whole lot more about this word. And while this term was once reserved for episodes of Law & Order, most Americans now have a STRONG opinion on both what the term means – and whether they believe that the President should be indicted.
Language Moment: Indictment
9. The language that inspired us.
This year had several inspiring moments where people found their voices in the wake of tragedy and injustice. Emma Gonzalez’ six minutes of silence at the March For Our Lives rally. Serena Williams’ US Open argument that her experience wouldn’t have happened to a man. The Pope apologizing in Dublin. It’s hard to pick just one. But one thing is for sure, people around the world are taking a stand for what they believe in and using raw, poignant language to do just that. And on January 1st, one movement took hold: Time’s Up. A legal defense fund to help people take a stand against sexual harassment and misconduct, the phrase has been repeated from Hollywood awards shows to main street – and will no doubt have a lasting impact on how women will be treated for generations to come.
Language Moment: #TimesUp
10. The language that took a risk.
Dick’s sporting goods took a stand on guns. Patagonia donated their tax cut to fight climate change. Toms entered the gun control conversation. Walmart, Lyft, and Uber worked to increase voter turnout. And Nike entered the conversation about the NFL. This was a year where companies took big risks by taking political stands, Nike’s campaign used some of the most powerful language of the year. While it was polarizing, it was symbolic of a trend we expect to see a lot more of, brands taking a bold and loud stand on issues usually reserved for Washington, DC.
Nike: “Believe in something” campaign
11. The language that allowed us to come together.
There was no doubt that this year was a year marked by division and controversy. And there were few moments that brought us together. There were some rallying cries in acceptance speeches after the midterms. And beautiful and heartbreaking eulogies by President Bush, Vice President Biden and more that reminded us of a time when we used to be a country who could respectfully disagree. Those moments stood out to us as moments of hope. There was one moment, though, that brought us together that tugged not at our heartstrings but played to our sense of humor – and because after looking back at the year we could all use a good laugh, we call this moment from SNL the apology of the year.
“America can forgive one another”
Words by: Michael Maslasnky, CEO, maslasnky + partners