When I learned that Oxford Languages, famous for its erudite Oxford English Dictionary, dove into nineteen billion words, picked three contenders for Word of the Year, then turned the choice over to The People, my inner elitist cringed. Every time the city magazine I used to write for did a People’s Choice and let readers vote for the best anything, the results were dubious. And yes, I know how snobbish that sounds, and it is about to get worse. The People, at least those who have the time and inclination to vote in such contests, tend toward the cheap and easy and familiar, even when that means mediocre.
Why would Oxford Languages abdicate?
“Having a group of people in Oxford choose it always felt weirdly undemocratic,” said product director Katherine Connor Martin. “And this year, when people are talking about democracy as a thing that might be under threat, it didn’t feel like the right approach.”
Voting in a democracy, though, means listening to endless speeches and debates, watching truly awful ads, reading and comparing policy statements. I doubt anybody brushed up on usage, linguistics, or the zeitgeist before they voted for the Word of the Year.
On the other hand, why should they bother? I would have made the same choice 93 percent of the internet voters made, picking “goblin mode” mainly because the alternatives were so horrid. “Metaverse,” while it has an interesting backstory, has been commercialized and rendered silly by Mark Zuckerberg. “#IStandWith” is noble but too easy and too cute, to carry the idealism it implies. And so, we have goblin mode as the standard bearer for 2022. “A type of behavior which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.”
Its etymological backstory, that thing the OED does so brilliantly? Last spring, somebody tweeted a fake news headline: Julia Fox saying she had broken up with Kanye (not yet Ye) West because he did not like it when she “went goblin mode.” And back in 2009, somebody posted on Twitter, “m was in full hyperactive goblin mode last night. it was as if she ate a bag of sugar-coated candy, then washed it down with a few red bulls.” That would suggest an original sense of manic and greedy.
It was the pandemic that added lazy and slovenly, explains Martin. There was “the feeling that the pandemic is over, but we’re still grappling with it. Do we want to go back to the notions of respectability of the prepandemic world?” Hell, we—and I include myself—do not even want to go back to the office. The difference is, I am not proud of going feral.
Grabbing the trend last March, The Guardian quoted Peter Hayes, a Bay Area tech worker who says he and his friends have jokingly called themselves goblins ever since lockdown: “At home there’s no social pressure to follow norms, so you sort of lose the habit. There’s also a feeling that we’re all fucked, so why bother?”
At which point it is good to remember that this is a mode, not a permanent state. We can slip in and out of goblin mode as easily as we slip in and out of existential despair. It is easy to blame—well, anything—on the pandemic, but the question remains: why a goblin? Just because we have cycled through zombies and vampires and aliens? Why couldn’t we be, oh, I don’t know, sprites?
Since crowd-sourcing is now officially sanctioned by Oxford, I turn to Wikipedia: “A goblin is a small, grotesque, monstrous creature that appears in the folklore of multiple European cultures. First attested in stories from the Middle Ages, they are ascribed conflicting abilities, temperaments, and appearances depending on the story and country of origin, ranging from mischievous household spirits to malicious, bestial thieves.”
Moral ambivalence—that feels true to the times. Diversity, but all of European origin. Small, in the scheme of things, but grabby. Bottom line, goblins are selfish little imps, quick to take what they want and decorum be damned. Do we not have enough of that impulse already, between consumerism and late-stage capitalism?
Sam George, an expert in gothic folklore, points out that real goblins (the oxymoron is mine) are pranksters; they do not graze on junk food all day or lie on the sofa binge-streaming. These are purposeful little monsters, and it is hard to live a life of purpose entirely in your pajamas. They are also shapeshifters, taking (like language itself) whatever form suits their whim.
I suspect what people really want from goblin mode is freedom from judgment. Sure, we can press a button and order our heart’s desire on Amazon and run up credit card debt in the process. But we have to constantly prove ourselves to keep our jobs and our relationships, because people sever them without a second thought.
The Oxford Languages press release also mentions people rebelling “against the increasingly unattainable aesthetic standards and unsustainable lifestyles exhibited on social media.” Yay to that. Especially for women, because gender plays a part here, too. Men stop shaving and look sexy; women stop any of the hundred tasks of grooming, primping, working out, and outfitting themselves and they are “letting themselves go.”
Goblins let themselves go.
In Grazia, Marianna Manson suggests that goblin mode “has been adopted by the zeitgeist to justify the version of ourselves unfit for public consumption and for women especially, that version often involves time and money spent preening and the perpetual self-scrutiny of everything from our body language to the way our hair looks that comes with being primarily a decorative ornament.” Read that without taking a breath. Too often that is how we live: without taking a breath. Is it any wonder we want to grab comfort and pleasure? That sappy “me time” hawked by the makers of bath salts and candy is only a thing because “me time” seldom lasts more than an hour.
Men are plagued by a different set of impossible expectations. And we are all sick of being influenced and curated, our behavior tracked and packaged like a FedEx box. “It is cool to be a goblin,” author Cat Marnell told The Guardian. “Everyone is so perfect all the time online, it is good to get in touch with the strange little creature that lives inside you.”
Marnell likes the mischief of goblinhood, not the destructive side. And goblin mode could have been a simple stress release. A Reddit poster earlier this year confided, “I like to creep around my home and act like a goblin. I don’t know why but I just enjoy doing this. Maybe it’s my way of dealing with stress or something but I just do it about once every week. Generally I’ll carry around a sack and creep around in a sort of crouch-walking position making goblin noises, then I’ll walk around my house and pick up various different ‘trinkets’ and put them in my bag while saying stuff like ‘I’ll be having that’ and laughing maniacally in my goblin voice.” The 273 comments were delighted and appreciative. Goofing around is pure relief in a world that has in large part lost its sense of humor (or let it sour into cynicism).
I like the goofy goblin mode. Why did it have to turn lazy, slovenly, and greedy? Those are far less appealing traits. They are teenage traits, rebellious and gleefully self-centered. Teenagers are often angry, because they are insecure, not sure they know best but sick of being told how to be better, and terrified of the future.
So maybe this worked exactly right. The word of the year reflects the zeitgeist, and we have been bullied by social media, dictated to by influencers, terrified by physical and political contagion, until the only obvious place to land was in crazed overreaction. Goblin mode.