In 1965, the then editor of Vogue Diana Vreeland wrote of an ‘exuberant tremor coursing through America’. Her article detailed with excitement the ways in which the British youth were changing the face of fashion and music: it was headlined ‘Youthquake’.
Five decades on, those tremors are just as exuberant, but their source has shifted. This year they turned political, charting the awakening of a generation felt by many to have been hitherto overlooked and powerless. If in the 1960s it was the baby boomers who became the catalysts for change; this year it was the much-maligned millennials.
‘Youthquake’ wasn’t an entirely predictable choice for Oxford’s Word of 2017. It hasn’t been on the lips of an entire nation, nor is it new. But it amply fulfilled the criteria Oxford requires for selection. Firstly, it has shown a marked increase in usage over the course of the past 12 months: the evidence from the dictionary-maker’s vast language databases records a growth of some 400%. The term began its rise to prominence during the British General Election in June, when a surge of young voters took to the polls to express dissatisfaction with the status quo and to support the Labour Party. Few could argue that this was not a seismic shift in voting behaviour, and experts on both sides hotly debated whether age had finally overtaken class to become the new key predictor of voting intention. This time, despite the election result, some pundits quipped it was ‘The Young Wot Won It’.
Secondly, this was clearly a word with legs. Around the globe, talk was of the power of the young to effect lasting political change. From Britain it moved to New Zealand, whose politicians wondered how they too could harness the youthquake in their own general elections. Australians adopted the term in the run-up to their referendum on gay marriage, and in France, many concluded it was the country’s 18-24 year olds that gave the National Front its momentum in the presidential campaign. Meanwhile, Russia shook with the tremors from some of the most vociferous and youth-driven protests against Vladimir Putin in years. Looking ahead, and given the steady increase in usage of ‘youthquake’ in the US, the term looks set to be stirring things up for some time yet.
There were of course other contenders, many of which also spoke to a year that most people, no matter which side of the political divide they occupy, would describe as divisive. Broflake, Antifa, and white fragility all saw significant spikes in usage this year, while gorpcore and unicorn offered some welcome light relief.
But it was ‘youthquake’ that had the gravitas and empirical backing that was needed. And as Oxford’s editors put it: ‘Sometimes a word of the year is chosen in recognition of its arrival, but other times it is picked because it is knocking at the door, and waiting to be ushered in’. Youthquake is certainly making some noise – if it is as yet unfamiliar to some of us, its momentum suggests that won’t be the case for long.