Russian Words of the Year and the Decade

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I do not recall ever having Russian words of the year featured on Language Log, so it's a delight to have the opportunity to do so now.  They were called to my attention by Don Keyser, who spotted this piece in Novaya Gazeta this morning:

Норм и обнуление — Подведены итоги конкурса «Слово года»-2021. Особая конкуренция — в номинации «антиязык»

05:29, 19 декабря 2021  Андрей Архангельский, член экспертного совета «Слово года»


Norm and zeroing

The results of the competition "Word of the Year" -2021 have been summed up. Particular competition – in the category "anti-language"

5:29 am, December 19, 2021

Andrey Arkhangelsky, member of the expert council "Word of the Year"

Don remarked:

Keeping up with the grimly evolving Russian language — neologisms, protoneologisms … the narrative is simultaneously enlightening, droll, and rather sad.

You can get a pretty good rendering via either DeepL or Google Translate. FYI, I've copied below the article the Google Translate rendering.  It doesn't do the embedded chart, of course, but the content of the chart is explained in the article.

The elections of the "Word of the Year" in Russia have been held for the 15th time since 2007. A similar action is held in Germany, USA, Great Britain, Poland, Japan, Australia and other countries. The ideologist and head of the expert council of the competition is philologist and culturologist Mikhail Epshtein, the moderator and leader of the Word of the Year and Neologism of the Year groups on Facebook is the writer and journalist Elena Chernikova. The list of candidate words, as always, was compiled according to the proposals of the group members (3500 people). Voting was traditionally held in four nominations: "Word of the Year", "Expression of the Year", "Anti-language" (language of enmity and hatred) and "Protologism" (neologisms created by the members of the group). In addition, this year the participants also chose the word decade – so we have two lists at once.

The words of the year and decade largely coincide or overlap with each other. This paradox, however, can be explained. “Covid overshadowed everything” – one could summarize the general results in this way: everything that is somehow connected with the epidemic leads in both lists by a large margin. True, if among the words of 2021, everything that is already associated with the consequences of the epidemic, the fight against it (vaccination is the word of 2021, as well as anti-axers*, QR-ghetto, antibodies, revaccination, Kommunarka, covikuly, smoking, booster), then in a word decades (2011–2021) became covid – and this series continues with the same pandemic, vaccine, QR code, remote control, self-isolation, quarantine, virus, lockdown …

[*VHM:  I think this should be "antivaxers"; Google Translate seems to have been confused by the Russian italics.  I did not check the entire document to see whether there were similar lapses, but it is likely that there might be.]

However, not one epidemic … ahem, alive.

Both lists – years and decades – split, one might say, into epidemic and political subsections.

The political words of the year are in one way or another connected with the unprecedented pressure of the authorities on civil society this year: Memorial (included by the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation in the register of organizations performing the function of a foreign agent), repression, detention, slowing down (not only of the Internet, but also of the pace of all social life), Constitution. Exactly the same "political" subdivision is also among the words of the decade: zeroing, sanctions, hybrid, corruption.

However, some words of the decade still go beyond simple duality (covid or politics); according to Mikhail Epstein, “the main strokes of the 2021 verbal portrait” reflect global trends as well. For example, the words cryptocurrency, facebook, TV series, and also post-truth. The latter has already been analyzed many times, however, thanks to new words, its meaning is clarified each time (for example, in the meaning of "flight from the truth"). This is indicated to us by the popular vernacular norms in Russia. The answer is "okay" to the question "how are you?" This often means not a positive assessment, but a statement that everything is "approximately as expected." But what, in this case, does this "self-encapsulation" of the word – "norms" instead of "normal" mean? In this abbreviation there is an attempt of the speaker, as it were, to close oneself from emotions, to freeze the emotional sphere, to “feel insensible”. The speaker believes that if he turns off his emotions, it will be easier for him to cope with all this. This self-deception reflects, as it seems to the author, the current state of mind. Refusal of self-reflection, hiding from oneself – this is the emotional outcome of the year.

Expression of the year and decade

This position – an escape from oneself, an attempt to hide behind words from reality – dominates both in the expression of the year (excess mortality) and in the expression of the decade (to get out of the comfort zone). The first has to do with the language of government statistics (a temporary increase in mortality in a population compared to expected). But in everyday use, the expression looks like an attempt to hide from the irreparable loss of an individual – behind a statistical norm or "just" a deviation from it.

The expression "getting out of the comfort zone" became popular in 1995 with Judy M. Borovik's book Danger in the comfort zone. The book of the HR specialist smelled like the managerial tyranny of the 2000s, but then this expression took on a more positive connotation and began to mean a desire for success. In Russia, as was the case with various scientific ideas, the expression underwent an inversion: it does not mean the desire for success, but, on the contrary, "the recognition of a terrible situation – when it is impossible to hide it." It is in this context that government officials use it, informing citizens about the next restrictions in connection with the pandemic. However, for the citizens themselves, “comfort” does not mean taking the necessary security measures, but refusing to change anything in their lives (based on the overall results of the vaccination campaign in Russia).

The same ambiguous "escape from oneself" (paraphrasing the famous work of Erich Fromm "Escape from Freedom") is inherent in some other expressions of 2021. For example, we live on: it is not clear whether this is hope or humility in front of the inevitable, as well as do not leave (instead of "die"). Let's not forget the replacement of the word death by multiple deaths, which also became a landmark event this year. At the same time, it is interesting that the old expression "we report with regret" is used today, as the voting showed, less and less. This archaism seems superfluous: there is not enough emotional strength for every loss. All are exhausted by insensibility and the magnitude of the calamity.

Anti-language and protologism

But in the category "Anti-language" the political prevails: here the expression “foreign agent” is in the lead. And only then – a record of deaths. In the anti-language of the decade, the expression is also leading. This message (material) was created (created) and (or) distributed (distributed) … – a construction of 27 words, which now, according to the law, must precede any public statement of those who are recognized as a foreign agent. Again, in this regard, one could say that the events of the past year overshadowed the events of the decade. But we can also assume the opposite: 2021 with its redundancy, in a sense, has become a decisive one for the entire decade. Over the years, "escape from oneself" has learned to use both physiological instincts (to buy something tasty – to seize troubles) and psychotechnical (expressions are non-judgmental, just stay with it, let it go, and so on).

The final nomination of the competition is "Protologism of the Year" (Protologisms of the decade were not considered). In the first place in 2021 – the protologism is not joking (author – Pavel Lozhkin) in the meaning of "one who is not supposed to be joking about." Rudeness (Anna Khristochevskaya) – independence from public opinion, combined with adherence to the principle of "being rude always, rude everywhere." However, here it would be possible to continue the author's thought and form another neologism – rudeness, the ability to withstand rudeness. A bore (Otar Bezhanov) – monotonous remote work from home. Two more neologisms by the same author: fraud – deception on a mobile phone, usually for the purpose of a banking fraud; sociopath – a person who prefers to hide from society. To annihilate, annihilation (Mikhail Epshtein) is an act of annihilation directed against free, thinking beings; this neologism seems to expand the vocabulary of terms by Sartre and other existentialists. Finally, useless thoughts (Anna Khristochevskaya) are relatively wise thoughts, but no one needs them. In a sense, this protologism not only makes fun of the self-motivated "wisdom", but also, alas, speaks of the next devaluation of the intellectual's status in society: in the world of useless thoughts, even genuine wisdom can go unnoticed; the thinker again does not decide anything – everything is decided for him by the impersonal “digital majority”. Let us hope, however, that numbers cannot substitute for reason; in fact, except for reason, we once again have nothing to hope for.


VHM:  We in the Anglosphere are generally woefully ill-informed and misinformed about what people in Russia are doing, thinking, and saying.  I personally am grateful for the opportunity to see things through a Russian person's eyes, seasoned with a generous sprinkling of mordant wit.  I must confess, nonetheless, how unbelievably sad it is that the Russians seem to have suffered more grievously from the pandemic than we on the whole did.  Another thought-provoking aspect of these Russian words of the year and the decade is that they reflect a penchant for introspection on language itself.

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