A Disconnection from Reality: Cambridge Dictionary's Word of the Year

Every year, the team who caretake the Cambridge Dictionary choose an English language word which they feel most represents the zeitgeist of the times. Often, the word is chosen because of how many times it was searched. For example, last year, Homer was the chosen word. No correlation to the long- running Simpsons series, but because its appearance in the game Wordle provoked unprecedented fury and keyboard bashing in England. The word was considered a typically disrespectful Americanism which took two words – home and run – and fused them together.

Adding insult to injury, home run is a scoring mechanism for another example of Americans having the audacity to take an English thing and make it their own; Baseball. Jolly irritating colonial upstarts, I dare say.

A Year Described in a Single Word

But the point is that sometimes the word Cambridge chooses is seemingly trivial. And sometimes it isn’t. It could be reasoned that Homer reflects how we often unnecessarily focus on banalities as an escape from reality. The two words preceding Homer were Perseverance and Quarantine. These are anything but banal. In fact, I can’t imagine two words more laser-focused on what the world was going through in 2021 and 2020.

This year, the team at Cambridge have chosen Hallucinate as their Word of the Year 2023.

The precise definition (Cambridge, not Oxford!) is “to seem to hear, feel or smell something that does not exist”.  A number of years ago, this definition would prompt drowsy nods of affirmation from Stoners and Acid Heads. But today, the word also applies to Generative AI, like ChatGPT. An app which generates false information in a manner which is so convincing that it seems inarguable.

The immediate reaction to this is a reminder of the increasingly sinister power that AI is exerting over the world at this moment in time.

But take a few seconds more to reflect, and you may find it’s an acknowledgement of our own growing awareness of the flaws and strengths of AI.

To even use the word Hallucinate is to understand the difference between what’s real and what’s not.

The Ghost in the Machine

This made me remember a phrase coined by a philosopher eighty years ago. ‘The Ghost in the Machine’ was Gilbert Ryle’s way of attempting to understand how the mind is proportioned. An adaptive compartment and a non-adaptive compartment, and this is what allows it to perform both independently of its host body and in concert with it. The duality of this, is what will hopefully always guide us to ultimately recognise what is real. And what is not. 

On that note, I think a vote of thanks should be given to the good folk at Cambridge Dictionary.

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