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How Do You Remember 2017 in One Word?

2017.12.08

At the beginning of December, there is an annual event that kicks off the wave of activities to wrap up the calendar year.  It is called “Word of the Year Award”.

The Japanese media chooses one word (sometimes two) which represents the trend and the big issue of the year. It was started in1984 by a publishing house which prides itself in its accurate reflection of social movements.

A publication that reflects changes in society


In 1948, Kunio Hasegawa was faced with a severe deficit on his publications.  He had been in the publishing business since 1935, always with the idea that words are free for all, and nobody should have less access than others to published material, but should be able to satisfy their yearning for knowledge and new ideas. With this ideology, he had to spend some years in prison during WWII when the imperial government banned any use of words derived from Western languages, such as Salaryman.  His publishing house’s name was exactly this and changing it to a more linguistically suitable Japanese name did not help him.

So, when all the hardship was over in 1945, he started the series of weekly publications called “Free People”.  It was a collection of stories and reports on current affairs, including social trends.  However, they did not sell.  It was more important at the time for people to have food on their tables, and the basics for survival in the shacks they built by hand. Some feedback and comments from readers gave him a glimpse of what was missing. Words used in the articles were highly technical, and, plainly too difficult for people who simply wanted to know what was going on around them in order to better their lives and businesses.

They did not have time to study or to go look up the meanings. They did not have means to do so either – imagine no internet.  Hasegawa needed and wanted to serve these readers.  This prompted him to create a dictionary of new “trending” words as a supplement to the weekly magazines.

What are the new words used and heard by people? 


He started with four categories, politics, law, science, and economics.  The first edition included words such as Democracy, Marshall Plan, Employment Laws, Inflation, and Female police officers.  These selections were made with contribution from professors in each field.  Many were derivatives of English words brought in by GHQ.  There was a section dedicated to occupation force acronyms.

But, feeling that the list was incomplete, Hasegawa decided to include fashion, music, movie and theatre, such as:

Aloha shirt: a shirt that is worn in Hawaii and Manila.

Hubba-hubba: American slang, but differently used, meaning “quick-quick”

“Hot”:  as in music, movie, and theatre performance

It initially angered the contributing professors.  But Hasegawa’s passion, to create a modern dictionary that reflects the broad society, convinced the scholars that it is necessary to have a definition of democracy discussed side by side with the slang for women on the street.  It is after all what and how people see in everyday life. They are not only new words but also new concepts and ideas. This annually published dictionary is called “Basic Knowledge of Modern Vocabulary”.

Reflecting broad society for a wider readership


This supplement was such a success, that 70 years later, the publication still continues. Not only does it keep compiling new words that are not listed in formal dictionaries but also included the words are those that were rarely used, and surfaced to catch the public’s attention.  It has become a book that shows the trends for a particular year, which carries historical value.

For example, in 1959 publication, a word “Heavy Viewer” is listed, as a child who watches TV too much.  Hippies and Psychedelic (or Psyche) are in the 1969 edition and the 1970 edition contains an article about the development of computer into the 4th generation, potentially becoming as small as telephones.  Fast forward to 2000, the top of the list is Mobile Life.  2017 reports on Instagram.

Hasegawa’s core idea of publishing, to contribute and record changing society, remains very relevant.  They of course operate with website resources and archives, as well as regular Twitter feeds to update what will come in the next publication.

One word to explain a year


This long selling annual dictionary is host to the aforementioned event in December – that is, “Word of the Year Award”.  Every year, panellists choose one, sometimes two, from shortlists of words from the book, which reflect what the year was about. The publishing house chooses the short list from the book. There is a category that readers choose from the shortlist, separately from the panel.

It started in 1984.  The words listed are those which are new, or which repeatedly appear in the media, and which people did not know the previous year, but which everyone knows this year. For some people, it is the ultimate honour to be named to be the source of the Word of the Year.  It means that whatever he or she did, it had a huge impact on society – an impact which could be felt in the future.

This year, 2017, it is “Insta Bae” (Instagrammable, or rather “Insta-Shine”) and “Sontaku”.

What are they?  What are the differences between Insta-Shine and Instagrammable?  What is the significance of this very Japanese word, Sontaku?

Wait until next week.

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