The 10 most mispronounced words of 2016 and what they say about the state of the world

Still no word for “this year needs to end already.”
Still no word for “this year needs to end already.”
Image: Reuters/Tim Wimborne
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The words we use in our daily lives change a little each year, depending on world events. In 2016, we bravely faced new realities—like the election of a reality TV star to the US presidency—and learned the lexicon required to describe the times.

The new vocabulary came from near and far. Some words were brand-new, created to address new fears. But others were classic terrors, and old Greek terms reentered into mass circulation…to the consternation of English readers and speakers, unsure just how to pronounce them.

Take solace in this. Words are tricky for journalists too. Newscasters pronouncing unfamiliar terms on the fly don’t always get it right, just like the rest of us. But since they happen to be recorded through their linguistic struggle, they make a great case study for the absorption of new words.

Babbel, the language-learning app, is particularly interested in how people learn new words. They turned to professional captioners—who are extremely attuned to exactly how words are spoken, since they listen to the news for a living—to find out how we managed with the most difficult new vocab of 2016. Babbel asked the US Captioning Company, which subtitles real-time events on TV, to identify the 11 topical words in 2016 that proved most challenging for American newscasters to pronounce correctly. The same request was made of the British Institute of Verbatim Reporters.

The British and American lists had some overlap, and were notable in how they differed too. Reporters in the US had trouble pronouncing Bowie—of Ziggy Stardust fame—and, less surprisingly, saying French actress Marion Cotillard’s name. Meanwhile, in the UK, journalists stumbled over Trumpisms like “anyhoo,” which is an already accepted mispronunciation of “anyhow” in the US.

Quartz consolidated the two lists (and removed proper names) to pick the 10 most relevant and mispronounced terms of 2016:

Chaos (/’keɪ-ɒs/ kay-oss): complete disorder; utter randomness.

This word came up a lot post-Brexit, the British referendum to exit the European Union, which passed on June 23 and left the nation in disarray. For better or worse, American reporters were already highly familiar with this term and it didn’t give them trouble—but, according to the British Institute of Verbatim Reporters, their countrymen found it trying.

Cisgender (/’sɪz-dʒɛn-dɜːr/; sizz-gen-dehr): Noting or relating to a person whose self-identity aligns with the gender of their biological sex; not transgender.

As debate over transgender rights reached new heights in the US in May, with passage of a law in North Carolina mandating that birth-gender determine public bathroom use, the need for a term to describe those who are not transgender, but instead identify with their birth sex, became urgent. Cisgender, long-employed by the LGBT community, became part of the everyday parlance in the US. This word was not on the British list.

Hygge (/’hjuː-gə/; HUEgah): Concept, originating in Denmark, of creating cozy and convivial atmospheres that promote well-being.

All were envious of the Danes this year, when we found out they had a unique flavor of contentment, described by an untranslatable word. There’s no precise word for this feeling in English. “It’s not just cozy with a blanket and a glass of wine,” says Jaime Kurtz, a psychology professor at James Madison University who teaches a course on Scandinavian happiness. “It’s also interpersonally cozy—so having a few people with you talking about issues and things you care deeply about. Having some candles lit, maybe a nice warm drink in your hand. Feeling safe and content.” Brits and Americans alike were interested in and befuddled by hygge.

Narcos (/’nɑːr-koʊs/; nark-ohs): From the Spanish for drug trafficker—narcotraficante—slang name given to South and Central American drug traffickers in the late 20th century; 2016 Netflix television series about the life of Pablo Escobar.

“In a globalized world, languages become international themselves—migrating into other countries and becoming part of a common vernacular,” says Katja Wilde, Babbel’s head of didactics. “This has always been the case, of course, and is the history of language creation and development, but never at the speed we are finding now.” The simultaneous rise in use of narcos in the US and UK is evidence that as we watch the same shows and exchange on social media, cultural differences are becoming less distinct.

Hyperbole (/haɪ-ˈpɝː-bə-li/ or hi-per-boh-lee): Exaggeration; inflated, unsubstantiated claims.

Our current time has been described as the post-truth age: an era of fake news driven by emotion and not facts. People say whatever they feel to be true, and sometimes it gets them elected president of the US. Americans already appreciate hyperbole and are familiar with the term, but that concept was more foreign to the British, whose journalists struggled pronouncing it.

Nomophobia (/’noʊ-moʊ-‘foʊ-biː-ə/; noh-moh-pho-bee-ah): Fear of being without one’s mobile phone.

No-mobile-phobia, or nomophobia, is probably one of the great universals of the day. This newly minted word describes a real problem internationally, as we all grow ever more attached to the tiny devices that dominate our lives. The word appeared on both British and American captioning professionals’ lists.

Quinoa (/kiː-‘noʊ-ə/ or /kiː-‘nuː-ə/; kee-NOH-ah or kee-NOO-ah): Andean grain crop popularized recently as a health food.

Couscous is out. Quinoa is in as the miracle grain of the year. By the time you figure out how to pronounce it, there will be a new grain craze. Quinoa was tough for journalists in both the US and UK to pronounce.

Redacted (/rɛd-‘æk-tɛd/; redd-ak-ted): Censored or obscured.

The British had difficulty with this word, but American broadcasters didn’t. Redaction arose in the context of stories about the FBI releasing Hillary Clinton’s emails, Google getting sued by the EU for acting as a monopoly, and other shady situations.

Xenophobia (/‘zɛn-oʊ-‘foʊ-biː-ə/; zen-oh-phoh-bee-ah): Fear of foreigners;’s Word of the Year 2016.

This was the year where fear of the unknown—of foreigners and of foreign ideas and people who espouse them—drove much of the political conversation. The word xenophobia was widely used in the US and Britain, and widely mispronounced by those nations’ broadcasters.

Zika (/’ziː-kə/; zee-kuh): Flavivirus transferrable by bites from mosquitos, by sexual contact, and from mother to child, which became epidemic in 2016.

Early in 2016, the World Health Organization warned that Zika was a serious international problem. Saying the word, while difficult for reporters in Britain and the US, is a hell of a lot easier than dealing with this health crisis.

Hygge New Year

The themes of this year were difficult to deal with. We faced the fact that facts were a thing of the past, for example.

Still, Wilde says that the increasingly rapid borrowing and blurring of distinctions between languages is a positive trend, evidence of shared global concerns and perspectives. Consider hygge: “With people and languages fluidly passing across borders, even a small country like Denmark can influence international culture;” Perhaps 2017 will bring us more words helpful concepts from friends abroad.

As for the proper pronunciation if flummoxed by first encounters? Don’t worry about it, actually.

There are, in fact, two linguistic approaches to language changes—descriptive and prescriptive—Wilde explains. In the context of pronunciation, descriptivists argue that if enough people say something a certain way it becomes correct, even if initially considered wrong. Prescriptivists insist on rules, their validity, and rigidity. The head of didactics at Babbel suggests the right approach is a combination: “Reaching communicative goals in real life is the most essential objective of language. But then there is style, coolness and other parameters, just as in clothing—adaptations always occur.”