The Word of the Year embodies a major theme resonating deeply in the cultural consciousness over the prior 12 months. This year, some of the most prominent news stories have centered around fear of the "other." Fear is an adaptive part of human evolutionary history and often influences behaviors and perceptions on a subconscious level. However, this particular year saw fear rise to the surface of cultural discourse. Because our users' interest in this overarching theme emerges so starkly for one specific word in our trending lookup data, xenophobia is Dictionary.com's 2016 Word of the Year.
The word xenophobia is actually relatively new, and only entered English in the late 1800s. It finds its roots in two Greek words, xénos meaning "stranger, guest," and phóbos meaning "fear, panic."
Dictionary.com defines xenophobia as "fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers." It can also refer to fear or dislike of customs, dress, and cultures of people with backgrounds different from our own.
Within the recent past, we can date user interest in the term xenophobia to April 2015, when there was a massive surge in lookups that was larger than any of the peaks seen in 2016. This spike in lookups was connected to attacks on foreign workers and overall rising xenophobia in South Africa. While lookups for xenophobia in the US also rose during that time, it was lookups from Dictionary.com's worldwide users that made this particular surge so significant.
The largest spike in data for the term xenophobia this year occurred on June 24 with a 938% increase in lookups-that's hundreds of users looking up the term each hour. This was the day after the UK voted to leave the European Union as the result of a much debated referendum, also known as Brexit. Another lookup trend that was influenced by the Brexit vote: user interest in the term hate crime soared in the month of July as newspapers covered an increase in crimes motivated by prejudice in post-Brexit UK. In October, the British Home Office reported a 41% increase in hate crimes the month following the EU referendum.
Soon after Brexit, the second largest surge in lookups this year for the term xenophobia leads us to the 2016 US presidential race. On June 29, President Obama gave a speech in which he expressed concern over the use of the term populism to describe Donald Trump's political rhetoric. Obama insisted that this was not an example of populism, but of "nativism or xenophobia." The biggest spike in lookups for the term populism occurred on June 30 as a result of Obama's speech.