What Oxford’s word of the year says about the mental health discourse, social media
As 2022 comes to a close, it’s the season of “word of the year” everywhere. Oxford declared “goblin mode” as its word of the year, while Collins Dictionary said it was “permacrisis”. Merriem-Webster announced “gaslighting” as its word of the year, while Cambridge declared it “homer”.
Oxford classifies “goblin mode” as slang, which describes “a type of behavior that is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly or greedy, typically in a way that defies social norms or expectations”. “Gaslighting”, according to Merriem-Webster, “is the act or practice of seriously deceiving someone, especially for your own benefit.”
Two of the four words this year, gaslighting and goblin mode, describe emotions we feel but presumably didn’t have a “word” for.
Does having a word for what one feels make things better?
According to a 2007 study by the University of California, Los Angeles, which involved brain imaging by psychologists, verbalizing feelings reduces the intensity of sadness, anger and pain. Thus, articulating feelings can have a therapeutic effect.
Recognizing emotions – or labeling them, as psychologists say – is the crucial first step in managing emotions. But it’s harder than it looks. Many people find it difficult to identify their emotions and often the most obvious description is not the truest.
Giving a voice to how one feels helps with “emotional dexterity,” which is the practice of using one’s feelings as information to help and guide them instead of trying to change emotions or control. It starts with correctly identifying the underlying feeling and emotion.
At the same time, the “labeling culture” has drawn some backlash. “You don’t go ‘goblin mode,’ you have clinical depression,” one Twitter user wrote.
This statement highlights the risk of trivializing psychological problems by humoring those who experience depression and find it difficult to socialize and leave the house. It also highlights the risk of creating a funny and memorable name for a certain mood that ends up justifying and normalizing its symptoms – preventing its treatment and resolution.
The rise of “goblin mode” highlights two phenomena by which social media discourse is articulated today: first, the urge to invent increasingly bizarre names to explain phenomena that have existed for years. The second is the increasingly polarized or exaggerated view of mental health through the lens of social media.
The first phenomenon is a direct outgrowth of the hashtag system that rewards the short and the instantly recognizable. It has grown in recent years in response to the proliferation of search engine optimization, or SEO, techniques and the aesthetics of social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram.
These terms typify people’s ways of being, summarizing mental states or complex evocative worlds in a single word.
While not inherently wrong, it tends to change and rewrite how things are understood. For example, using clinical words for disorders such as anxiety or depression to describe typical emotional states can lead people to claim they are depressed when they are actually just upset or sad.
A term like “social anxiety” has evolved from a psychological problem to be used for any unpleasant situation. Consequently, individuals who endure an unpleasant situation but who do not have a chronic disorder, as well as those severely affected by agoraphobia or hikokomori syndrome – two possible scientific aliases of goblin mode – are seen in the same psychologist’s office.
According to the National Health Service, agoraphobia is a complication of a panic disorder. This causes a person to fear being in situations that are difficult to escape from or in which things can go wrong. Hikokomori syndrome refers to an extreme form of social withdrawal or withdrawal.
Much online literature about the “goblin mode” does not take depression or other persistent mental illnesses seriously. Depression, despite seemingly resembling “goblin mode”, is fundamentally different and more dangerous.
The silver lining, however, is that the mental health discourse and awareness is much stronger today than before the Covid-19 pandemic. Changes in society and the way we think are also reflected in the “word of the year”.
Oxford’s word of the year for 2021 was VAX, while its list of “Words of an Unprecedented Year” for 2020 included “lockdown”, “shelter in place”, “circuit breaker”, among others, as the world saw the first year of the Covid19 pandemic.
His word for 2019 was “climate emergency”, for 2018 it was “toxic” and for 2017 it was “youth tremor”. For 2016, it was “post-truth”, in the wake of the US presidential election that Donald Trump won, and the United Kingdom’s referendum on exit from the European Union – “Brexit”.
The word of the year for 2015 was simply the emoji 😂 – “face with tears of joy” – a clear indication, if anything, that now more than ever it’s great to talk about our feelings and emotions.
A decade of Oxford’s ‘word of the year’:
2012 Omnishambles (UK) and GIF (US)
2011 Middle pressed
2010 Great Society (UK) and Refugees (US)
2009 Simples (UK) and unfriend (US)
2008 Credit crunch (UK) and hypermiling (US)
2007 Carbon Footprint (UK) and Locavore (US)
2006 Bovvered (UK) and carbon neutral (US)
2005 Sudoku (UK) and podcast (US)
Credit: Oxford Languages
Zulekha Shakoor Rajani is a counselor and educator in Bangalore. She can be reached at [email protected] Her Twitter handle is @ZulekhaRajani.