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Words of the year: Real or Memorex?

by SHOLEH PATRICK
| December 12, 2023 1:00 AM

That headline is rather unfair to younger readers, but those of a “certain age” undoubtedly remember the cassette brand commercials: Is it real, or is it Memorex? Which means you’d get it if I say 2023’s Words of the Year fit the same theme.

Short answer: It’s Memorex.

In decades-long tradition major dictionaries select a word of the year representing America’s cultural focus over the past 12 months. At first, these WOTYs were gleaned from frequent appearances in newspaper headlines. Then in the 2000s that shifted; while most still use headlines as part of the selection criteria, all use online lookups to find the most-searched words.

The words are different for each Dictionary (although sometimes two will have the same WOTY), but most years they tend to fit a theme. That should be interesting even if you aren’t a word nerd, WOTYs tend to reflect current topics foremost on American minds.

This year, we’ve been thinking a lot about what’s real, and what isn’t.

Artificial intelligence (Collins): Defining “AI” as “the modelling of human mental functions by computer programs,” Collins notes that AI’s rapid development has been much talked about in 2023. Its possibilities fascinate, thrill, and scare us.

Hallucinate (Cambridge): Also related to AI, The Cambridge Dictionary writes “(T)he surge of interest (in AI) this year has been prompted by an abundance of tools being released for public use, such as ChatGPT, Bard, DALL-E, and BingAI, all of which … allow computers to produce language that seems similar to what a human might say.” Recognizing this new context created by generative AI, Cambridge chose hallucinate — “to see or hear something that does not exist.”

Rizz (Oxford): Gens Y and Z have an advantage over the Memorex crowd on this one. With votes by 30,000 site users on a short list (rizz, situationship, Swiftie and prompt), the winner “rizz” is a newer, colloquial noun. Short for charisma, rizz is defined as “style, charm, or attractiveness; the ability to attract a romantic partner.” A bit of a stretch to fit the Memorex theme, but let’s be honest; the initial dating phase isn’t exactly about keeping it real.  

Authentic (Merriam-Webster): Here we have the sum of the year’s WOTYs. Authenticity is what Americans are thinking about, writing about, aspiring to, and — with exaggerated emphasis — judging more than ever. Merriam-Webster said while authentic gets high-volume attention most years, it increased substantially in 2023 thanks to stories and conversations about AI, celebrity culture, identity, and social media.

Authentic’s meanings include not false or imitation; true to one’s own personality, spirit or character; and a synonym of real. While all adults know what it means and that it’s considered a desirable quality, with so many new contexts authentic has become harder to identify and subject to debate. We now ascribe authenticity to larger identities (national, cultural, even ethical as well as personal), to corporate and government activities, to food and objects. The latter is also related to artificial intelligence; consider artificial recordings and highly engineered food.

The line between “real” and “fake” is blurrier than ever (perhaps more in our minds than in reality), an idea connected to each of 2023’s WOTYs. The “smarter” technology gets, the more a nervous society craves, or at least strives to discern, what’s authentic. The trouble is, a bit like “rizz,” this hyperfocus on, and demand for, authentic has also led to authenticity being used as performance, as branding. Ironically, authentic can be faked, too.

Which brings us full circle to: Is it real, or is it Memorex?

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who tends to distrust marketing claiming authenticity. Email sholeh@cdapress.com.