/The words and phrases that defined the decade
The words and phrases that defined the decade

The words and phrases that defined the decade

We shape language as much as it shapes us. And it’s constantly evolving.

The top 10 words and phrases that defined this past decade aren’t all necessarily new, but they did gain mainstream popularity, relevance, and acceptance between 2010-2019. To crown these winning terms, we consulted with a swath of experts, including internet linguist and author of Because Internet, Gretchen McCulloch; Ponoma College sociolinguist Nicole Holliday, as well as Dictionary.com’s lexicographer Heather Bonikowski and senior research editor John Kelly.

Whether or not the following words and phrases — and the many more they spawned over time (bolded throughout) — have short or long lives after the decade, they certainly captured the ideas and phenomenons that ruled this moment in our zeitgeist.

1. Hashtag

Over the past decade the hashtag changed the way we use social media, launched revolutionary social movements, and bled into IRL vernacular.

Tech innovator Chris Messina first told Twitter it should use hashtags in 2007 to create “channels” people could use for discovery. The nascent social media platform reportedly told him “these things are for nerds,” doubted they’d become much of a thing, but then eventually embraced them anyway in 2009. By 2010, not only did Instagram also start using hashtags but they became integral to organizing a number of social movements on Twitter, from the Arab Spring, the Tea Party, and later Occupy Wall Street. 

Twitter helped sound the alarm on important global issues.

Twitter helped sound the alarm on important global issues.

Image: vicky leta / mashable

That legacy continues to thrive to this day, with #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo leading to revolutionary social change because their message can spread online on a global scale. Hashtags and the activists behind them used this power to bring widespread awareness to phenomenons like police brutality and enthusiastic consent, making room for citizen journalism and (from the more cynical perspective) slacktivism.

But outside that monumental impact, hashtags forever changed the way we shared experiences and information online. They enabled real-time, live-blogging of breaking news, like that time some guy on Twitter accidentally broke the news of the Osama Bin Laden raid

Ironically, hashtags also opened the door for Twitter Moments and Trending Topics, which similarly gather conversations around a single topic, but without relying on the hashtag to do so. The hashtag still has pull at the end of the decade, but there are new ways to lasso together our fast-paced online conversations, too.

2. Hipster

Every generation needs a derisive label for their trendy young people. 

The peace-loving boomers in the 1960s were called a bunch of long-haired no-good hippies. Millennials in the 2010s became the vintage flannel and skinny jean-wearing hipsters who fetishize retro-tech like polaroid cameras. They come in various subcategories, too, whether it’s lumbersexual, normcore, or nerd.

Dictionary.com traces the word hipster back to “hepster,” first used in the late 1930s in reference to an in-the-know (aka “hip”) “person who is knowledgeable about or interested in jazz.” That still aligns with our modern stereotypes of arrogant hipsters blindly following of-the-moment trends who were, like, totally into that alt indie-pop band before everyone else was. Apparently some scholars even speculate that “hipster” eventually became “hippie,” before then coming back again.

Aside from millennials, hipsters are also closely associated with the phenomenon of gentrification. Affluent, usually white young people take over low-income neighborhoods, spiking up the cost of living and displacing the communities that were there before. That’s why the “hipster coffee shop” has become a favorite strawman to deride liberal hypocrisy.  

We were over hipster before everyone else was.

We were over hipster before everyone else was.

Image: vicky leta / mashable

According to Dictionary.com, the connotation that hipsters appropriate marginalized cultures was there early on, too, as evidenced by Norman Mailer’s popular 1957 essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.”

The exact parameters for what a hipster even is changes depending on what’s en vogue at any given moment. But one specific shift we’re seeing at the end of the decade is the notion that all hipsters are millennials. After killing just about everything else, soon millennials will see the death of their own relevance as the target demographic, giving way instead to Generation Z

Ok Zoomers!

3. Culture War

The modern concept of an American culture war dates back to the early ‘90s. But the polarizing “battle lines” only truly seem to have solidified in the 2010s.

Perceived threats to one’s race, gender, religious, and cultural identity are one of the only commonalities shared by both sides.

Generally-speaking, partisan politics used to be defined by economics. But the past decade saw a sharp rise in increasingly personal and identity-driven political divides. Identity politics doesn’t just refer to its derogatory connotation of social justice warrior snowflakes advocating for cancel culture and political correctness (though that’s part of it). The rise of the alt-right, modern white supremacy, and men’s rights activists show how perceived threats to one’s race, gender, religious, and cultural identity are one of the only commonalities shared by both sides.

In truth, definitive, hard facts about the culture war — why it began (like online echo chambers), when it began, or even the exact nature of its existence — are kind of impossible to determine in any level-headed manner while we’re in the thick of it.

But what’s undeniable is its impact on language, with each side forming its own set of distinct terminology: problematic, microaggressions, virtue signaling, toxicity, gaslighting, safe spaces, triggered, red pilled, Q-anon, incel. In a world of alternative facts, when even words like fake news — coined for the specific purpose of trying to objectively measure our post-truth existence — lose all meaning, it’s hard to be sure of anything.

4. Climate change

Throughout the decade, climate change deniers like President Donald Trump have been claiming that “they” (whoever the fuck “they” are) changed the name of environmental collapse from “global warming” to “climate change” because the earth isn’t getting warmer.

He is wrong.

They changed the name from “global warming” to “climate change” after the term global warming just wasn’t working (it was too cold)!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 25, 2013

Scientists have pushed for the switch from global warming to climate change since 2005 because it more accurately describes the fuller scope of what’s happening. Global warming is only one factor within the larger umbrella of climate change. Before even that, in politics the switch happened under none other than former President George W. Bush for more dubious reasons, with one memo suggesting it be used because climate change sounded “less frightening” than global warming.

They were actually right. Studies have shown people to be less responsive to the term climate change. That might be part of why the general public’s adoption of the term has been much slower than the political and scientific communities. But it seems the general public has latched onto climate change more in recent years. Comparing the two terms using Google Search trends shows climate change has overtaken global warming’s search popularity since 2015.

However, to offset some of the psychological disadvantages of climate change, the advocacy group Public Citizen urged people to retire climate change in lieu of “climate crisis,” and notable publications like The Guardian have followed suit. The idea is to remain scientifically accurate while also bringing back the sense of urgency and need for action appropriate to the scale of the calamity. Climate strike was even Collins Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2019, since its usage shot up 100-fold from 2018 to 2019.

Still others encourage even more dire language, with teen activist Greta Thunberg preferring terms such as “climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency.

News alert: climate change isn't always warm.

News alert: climate change isn’t always warm.

Image: vicky leta / mashable

5. Content

In his 1996 essay “Content is King,” Bill Gates rightfully predicted how the internet would usher in a revolution in the way we think about, produce, supply, and monetize information and entertainment. With the hindsight of the 2010s, we can now say this bold title undersold exactly how radical that shift would be.

In the age of content creators, content marketing, #sponcon, influencers, vloggers, bloggers, streaming services, cinematic universes, and binge-watching, content isn’t just king. It’s everything from the peasants to our higher power.

Of course, people were blogging and vlogging basically since the internet’s inception. But 2010 saw the first-ever Vidcon, an indication of content creation’s growth and professionalization. With it came the idea that anyone can create content, proliferating the conceit of a personal brand, an acknowledgment that our online personas are curated ideals rather than our authentic selves.

While Netflix and Hulu launched their streaming services in 2007 and 2008, respectively, Netflix changed everything in 2013 with the release of its first slate of originals, including House of Cards. In 2019, we’re still in the thick of the streaming wars, with old media mega-corporations like Disney only just now beginning to enter the fray. 

Content is Prison.

Content is Prison.

Image: vicky leta / mashable

Alongside all that came the mainstreaming of expanded universes, a concept previously relegated to nerdy niches like comic books and fanfiction. But cultural phenomenons like Marvel and Game of Thrones gave way to the rise of IP (intellectual property) as the cash cow corporations feed with a never-ending stream of new content.

Content is the vague, ephemeral, yet omnipresent digital material that rules us all.

6. Very online

Internet culture obviously predates the 2010s (just ask AIM, Livejournal, and Tumblr). But what is new to the decade is a more complete interweaving of digital and pop culture. Digital culture became even more trendy, resulting in two distinct categories of people: those who know all the memes and are very online, or those who well… aren’t (aka locals). 

As is to be expected, often this divide falls down the demographic lines of those who are “pre-internet” (adults before the web), “full-internet” (grew up alongside the web), and “post-internet” (born to a world ruled by the web). But the normalization of social media platforms made it so that following or not following the norms and memes of internetspeak is more of a choice now rather than predetermined by age.

Grandma can be very online if she wants to!

Grandma can be very online if she wants to!

Image: vicky leta / mashable

For better or worse, the democratization of content creation on the internet also led to a blurring of lines between internetspeak and slang from marginalized groups. Some phrases like “on fleek” and “yaaas queen” have clear origins in black culture and queer drag culture respectively. Similarly “woke,” “lit,” and “throwing shade” all trace back to black culture, but following widespread generic online adoption they’re often deemed dead by the communities that originated them. Brands and influencers go on to make money by parroting them anyway, effectively whitewashing or pinkwashing their origins.

The question of whether the vast majority of internet slang should be considered cultural appropriation has no easy answer. But recognizing that the marginalized groups who popularize them are often quickly forgotten as the originators tells us a lot about the limits of a digital democracy. 

7. Emoji

In the 2010s, emoji became the most popular form of online gesture communication (though GIFs can serve a similar function as well). All that means is, in order to offset the lack of physical information we usually get from an IRL conversation, we started using symbolic images and icons.

From eggplants to prayer hands, the meanings of emoji took on a life of their own outside of just what each literally depicts. Some have even made it into IRL vocabulary, because we all know what “heart eyes” means when a friend asks if their outfit is cute.

And for that we’re 🙏. 

8. Inclusivity and intersectionality

To reiterate, while most of the terms we’re including in this section were coined decades ago by scholars, we’re pointing to their popularization in the mainstream discourse outside of academia during the 2010s.

Inclusivity and intersectionality arrived in a big way on the mainstream stage during the 2018 Academy Awards, and not without some backlash. Much of their history and original meaning was lost in translation of their widespread adoption over the decade, leading some to criticize them as catch-all, meaningless buzzwords that lead to only superficial politically correct checklists.

Many wrongfully believe inclusivity and intersectionality can be used interchangeably.

New terms help give marginalized identities a voice.

New terms help give marginalized identities a voice.

Image: bob al-greene / mashable

Intersectionality specifically describes the often overlooked and unique discrimination experienced by people of multiple overlapping marginalized identities, like race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. It enables us to address the subtleties of colorism, or the need for nonbinary and genderqueer versions of Latin identifiers like Latinx, Afro-Latinx, and Chicanx

Inclusivity, on the other hand, is a more broadly applicable framework to ensure spaces and  policies take all forms of identities into account to avoid discrimination and oppression. The past decade saw some promising linguistic growth around more widely-accepted inclusive language, with the American Psychological Association’s official addition of the singular they/them and Merriam Webster naming the pronoun their Word of the Year in 2019.

Inclusivity allows us to call out TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) and bi-erasure, for example, or to encompass a fuller spectrum of gender and sexual identity with a +, as in LGBTQIA+.

Intersectionality, inclusivity, and online activism became the defining components of what some now call fourth-wave feminism. Often associated with the #MeToo, Time’s Up, and Women’s March movements, it focuses on addressing the systemic power imbalance embedded in issues like sexual harassment, body shaming, slut shaming, and rape culture.

9. The 1%

Back in 2011, we could do little more than scoff at the liberal leaderless protest movement that occupied Wall Street for months. Yet by the end of the decade, it’s become clear just how effective it was at not only bringing widespread but long-lasting awareness to the movement’s core issues.

“We are the 99%.”

In 2019 many of the slogans (“the 1%” and “we are the 99%”) and concepts (

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