2019 saw the UK’s Collins Dictionary elect ‘climate strike’ as its ‘word of the year’. The term has been used frequently as a direct result of Greta Thunberg’s climate change protest when she refused to attend school until Swedish ministers started taking action. The dictionary’s official definition is:
A form of protest in which people absent themselves from education or work in order to join demonstrations demanding action to counter climate change.
Meanwhile, in Japan, the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation chose rei as the ‘kanji of the year’. (Kanji are characters used in the Japanese writing system.) Rei (令) is the first character in the word Reiwa (令和), which is the name of Japan’s new imperial era. Although rei by itself translates as ‘command’ ‘order’ or ‘auspicious’, the Japanese translate Reiwa as ‘beautiful harmony’.
When a new Emperor comes to the throne in Japan, it marks the beginning of a new era (or imperial reign) in the country’s calendar. Each new era is given a unique name. The Heisei era began on 8 January 1989 and ended on 30 April 2019 as a result of Emperor Akihito’s abdication. So, in 2019, the new era was named Reiwa. NHK Japan explains: “rei reflects the Japanese people’s desire for happiness and a brighter future in the new era [of Reiwa], which started when Emperor Naruhito ascended the throne on May 1 ”.
Both ‘climate strike’ and rei mark specific issues or events which have shaped these societies.
It’s interesting to reflect on the change in tone for the UK between 2013 and 2018 as fairly superficial terms give way to words representing serious societal problems. Interestingly, the 2018 kanji for Japan was sai, meaning ‘disaster’ after a year of natural disasters and corporate scandals. In 2017 the kanji kita, which translates as ‘north’, referred to North Korea’s controversial missile tests.
Collins Dictionary Word of the Year (UK):
2019: Climate strike
2017: Fake news
When translated into Japanese, most of these words are transliterated meaning that the phonetic sound is copied and transferred into the Japanese katakana alphabet (used for foreign loan words as well as onomatopoeia). If you put ‘photo bomb’ into Google translate, you get a direct Japanese translation: the characters for ‘photo’ and ‘bomb’, which would be utterly confusing for a Japanese person! These kinds of culturally specific terms will often require careful consideration by a translator and understanding of current linguistic terms.
So, what could be the words or terms selected for 2020? Possibly Japan’s kanji will have something to do with sports, for example, ‘determination’? As for the UK, perhaps we can hope for ‘clarity’.
Did your country have a word of the year for 2019 which signified something particular to your country, its culture or events? Would it translate easily into other languages?
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