December brings all sorts of year-end awards. One that I look forward to is the Word of the Year. That’s a real thing, which a few dictionairies name. It’s the word that somehow sums up what was happening in 2018.
Oxford just named “toxic” as the winner. Toxic saw a 45% spike in the number of times it was looked up on oxforddictionaries.com over the past year. The word has been used in a variety of contexts, says Oxford, that reflect the news and mood of the year. Think toxic culture, toxic chemicals, toxic masculinity and toxic environment.
Dictionary.com picked as its winner “misinformation”. They took care to distinguish it from disinformation, which they define as “deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda.”
“Disinformation is crafted and disseminated with the intent to mislead others. The difference between misinformation and disinformation comes down to intent,” reported Dictionary.com. “If a politician strategically spreads information that they know to be false, that’s disinformation. When an individual sees this disinformation, believes it, and then shares it, that’s misinformation.”
Toxic and misinformation each say a lot about these past 12 months. I have my own nominee for worst phrase of the year.
“Thoughts and prayers.”
You’ve probably heard and seen it a zillion times in the aftermath of a tragedy. Usually, from politicians who send out their “thoughts and prayers” for victims and their families.
It’s not only that I find the expression to be meaningless and lazy, but that I also feel it does an actual disservice.
The Urban Dictionary website, based on user submissions, defines “thoughts and prayers” like this:
- “The three words that make you sound like you actually care.”
- “A useless phrase…requires the bare minimum of effort.”
- “An expression of indifference to tragedy intended to be empathetic.”
What becomes infuriating is the use of “thoughts and prayers” not to augment concrete action but to replace it. Talk about toxic.
If you’re a policy-maker, propose something that makes a difference to the issue at hand. Otherwise, you’re just in the way.
After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in February, one woman sent her elected representative a cheque. On the line to enter the amount, she wrote “thoughts and prayers”; that seemed to be, she explained, the politician’s solution to mass shootings.
Four months later, after another shooting at the office of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, one of the reporters who made it out was interviewed on CNN. Selene San Felice said she doesn’t give a hoot about “thoughts and prayers”. Except she used a much stronger four-letter-word than hoot, live on the air.
(Now San Felice and colleagues are on one of the four covers of Time magazine’s Person of the Year issue, honouring journalists under attack and highlighting the war on truth.)
The “thoughts and prayers” expression doesn’t just pop up after shootings. And it isn’t just an American phenomenon. It seems to be to the go-to crutch after every sort of loss, from natural disasters to transportation mishaps.
Never mind the politicians. I’ve also seen all sorts of people use “thoughts and prayers” to convey their everyday concerns to friends and loved ones, about a death or illness for instance. Sometimes people just shorten the expression in a text or tweet: T&P. Yes, there is a way to make “thoughts and prayers” even more trite.
There’s a Wikipedia entry for “thoughts and prayers” now. It references criticism that the phrase is a form of civilian or political slacktivism. Not the least you can do, but pretty close.
I recognize that there’s sometimes genuine care and good-heartedness behind “thoughts and prayers”. It can be said in good faith. So for anyone who follows up “thoughts and prayers” with actual positive steps, good for you.
And for everyone else who uses “thoughts and prayers” flippantly and who feels hurt by critiques of the term, I offer my sincere T&P.
Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.
Dec. 12, 2018