Words matter. Especially to a dictionary publisher, and who would know better what words are in the zeitgeist than Oxford Dictionary. The staple of the literary world just announced their 2018 Word of the Year.

First, what exactly is the Word of the Year and how is it chosen? As the dictionary's own website puts it:

"The Oxford Word of the Year is a word or expression that is judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year, and have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance."

This year's winner saw a whopping 45 percent rise in the number of times it was searched. No, the word of the year is not "Fortnite" or "Imagine Dragons." It's something decidedly more insidious.

"Toxic."

What's also interesting are the ways in which it was searched, not just as a noxious chemical entity like toxic waste, air, substance, or gas (all in the top 10 searches for the word). Also in the top 10 searches are:

  • Toxic masculinity (No. 2)
  • Toxic environment (No. 5)
  • Toxic relationship (No. 6)
  • Toxic culture (No. 7)

This is where we are as a society. I was more sullen than surprised when I learned of the winner.

Oxford defines the word toxic as "poisonous", which unfortunately fits with the 2018 workplace. In a year when #MeToo redefined how men show up, the term "toxic masculinity" seems too forgiving. Perhaps "toxic misogyny" is what people meant to search.

Toxic environment and culture go hand in hand, thrust to the forefront, even from unexpected places like Google or the highest of places like The White House and Parliament. Toxic relationships are on our collective conscious with an increasing number of nasty celebrity breakups, sickening public parental behavior, abhorrent revelations from the Catholic Church, and the daily backbiting spectacle that happens in politics in general, but especially in an election year.

That the word "toxic" has risen to such nefarious heights is a sign. So I'm turning my attention to signs that you're in the midst of one of these searched terms. 

Awareness can lead to action. And the action must be that we hurl the 2018 winner into the verbiage vortex. Make it as irrelevant and forgotten as the words "dungarees" or "floppy disk". The "how" is not the focus here, so let me aid with an awareness campaign:

Signs you're in a toxic culture or environment

  • You can't really speak your mind to the boss.
  • Only those with a certain style get promoted.
  • In truth, taking risks really isn't rewarded.
  • You have to toot your own horn to get ahead.

Signs you're in a toxic work relationship

  • Your counterpart shirks responsibility or accountability.
  • There's more lashing out than listening.
  • Quick to criticize, slow to praise is the norm.

Signs you're dealing with toxic masculinity

I'm not an expert on handling sexual harassment, so I will stick with definitions to help create awareness. A study from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine identified three categories of sexually harassing behavior:

  • Gender harassment: verbal and non-verbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion, or a second-class status to members of one-gender
  • Unwanted sexual attention: verbal or physical unwanted advances
  • Sexual coercion: when advancement or other opportunities are conditioned on sexual activity

To "toxic" I say, #TimesUp. Your demise will be anything but "tragic."

Published on: Dec 17, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.