2021, the Year of the Dictionary

Yes, I’m a person who likes to find a word to represent the upcoming year–some idea to focus my intentions, thoughts/what-have-you around. Madeleine Dore from Extraordinary Routines picked an especially apt word this year. While I have picked words for myself in the past, I don’t know if I put a necessary amount of thought into it. This year, I’m taking a different approach. As I contemplated my 2021 word, I found myself much more interested in the meaning of the words I considered rather than the word itself.

A love of the dictionary was firmly instilled in me at a young age. In the fifth grade, we were required to have a personal dictionary and thesaurus out on our desks at all times. However, it felt less like a requirement and more like an opportunity. Our teacher would randomly call out words and ask for a definition. The first person to find it was rewarded. A piece of candy would come sailing through the air and into our preteen palms for a correct answer. Mrs. Meyers never called it candy though, these were “brain pills.” We all wanted them.

As I aged and no longer had to look up the meaning of words, I focused less on definitions. Poetry made me focus a word’s mouth-feel, meter, or visual presentation as much as, maybe more, than a word’s meaning. A dangerous habit, I realize, being that this can lead to using the wrong word, or being careless with language in general.

I became acutely aware of this in the last year.

While there are many, many, many challenging realities from 2020 that are worthy of (and need) deep thought, one reality I found myself needled by was a cultural shift away from nuance and context, the kind of activities that require critical rather than reactionary thinking. I even found myself guilty of this on occasion, so I tried to be more mindful of the way I processed information. Fast forward to a few weeks ago, and that’s when I found myself shuffling between several words for 2021 and I stopped myself: Ashley, do you even know what these words technically mean?

Unfortunately, I can’t remember exactly which newsletter reminded/inspired me to partake in the ritual (because let’s be honest, this is something that a lot of people are doing/talking about at the moment). But what I do remember is the writer threw out a couple of words as possibilities and I landed on the word enchanting. I like the word, it brings up associations with fairytales for me, but it didn’t feel right for 2021. So, I looked up the word and then considered its synonyms.

There, in the objective and beautifully concise definitions, I discovered a small practice in the mindfulness of nuance. It was also a nostalgic reminder of Mrs. Meyers’ classroom. Every word I considered for the year, even if I thought I knew what it meant, I looked it up. I was a little surprised by the subtle differences between words that I had taken for granted.

It seemed that each word carried a different degree of a particular sentiment. For example, to enchant someone is to “fill someone with great delight; charm” but to be “charming” means to “delight greatly.” Arguably, they mean the same thing but the difference between the verbs “fill” and “delight” in the definitions suggests there’s a slice of daylight between these words. Perhaps “delight greatly” packs slightly more punch than “fill someone with great delight” and as such the word carries a different sort of power. Maybe to enchant someone is more like inhaling a perfume and to charm someone is like stepping into a warm shower.

It was a similar slice of daylight that helped me land on my word for the year. “Enchanting” and “magical” revealed that while both words can mean something that is delightful, “magical” extends the delight “in such a way as to seem removed from everyday life.*” While I will trumpet the value of brevity, when I came across that definition, I wanted to only use the definition and not the word itself, as if the word were masking some greater truth. The part that felt satisfying for me was the idea that the sentiment had a chronological element, that the scope of the word was slightly larger.

I want to see the delight between all the words I use, in case I can express myself more clearly. Even though the word I landed on for 2021 is “magical,” what I really landed on was an approach to the way I’ll be using language in the new year. One that is hopefully more thoughtful, slower, and well, more delightful in a way that feels removed from every day life.

* This is the Google definition, which they cite Oxford Languages. Merriam Webster’s definition of course was different, but the differences between each sources’ definition will have to be a topic for another day.

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