It’s that time again. The Oxford English Dictionary has chosen its word of the year, and this year’s choice is nothing if not topical.
For many of us, 2016 has been dominated by two democratic decisions. On June 23rd Britain voted to leave the European Union, and just last week on November 8th Americans voted to make Donald Trump their President. Both campaigns were longer on baseless speculation and shorter on facts than we might have hoped. Indeed, both campaigns were defined and arguably decided by speculation, rumour and plain dishonesty. So when the OED chooses “post-truth” as the word of 2016 it has a point. Usage has increased by 2,000 per cent this year and it’s not going to go away.
It’s not going to inspire anyone either, though, and this is a time when we could use a little inspiration.
Humayun Khan would have been forty years old this year. Born in the UAE, he moved to the United States with his Pakistani parents as a child and after graduating from the University of Virginia he chose to repay his country for its hospitality. Khan served as a Captain in the Iraq war and was killed there in the summer of 2004.
Twelve summers later he became a symbol not only of patriotic courage but of the positive contribution of Muslim Americans when his parents appeared at the Democratic Party Convention. His father Khizr spoke movingly of what his son had given, and what he and his wife had lost. Ghazala Khan’s silence, the silence of a grieving mother, was mocked as a sign of female oppression. She and her husband responded with dignity, and it’s easy to see where Captain Khan, a posthumous Purple Heart winner, got his courage and sense of duty.
The fact that the decency of the Khans and the indecency of the attack on them was ignored on election day doesn’t make them any less important. If anything they now serve as an even more crucial reminder of what democracies and their citizens should aspire to. Yes, it’s darker. So let’s cherish what light we have.
Language can reflect the fad of a moment or the trend of a generation. It can hold up an unflattering mirror to our world and give a label to things we would just as soon forget.
And sometimes it can elevate us by capturing what’s bravest and best.
The woman of the year is Ghazala Khan.
The man of the year is Khizr Khan.
The word of the year is sacrifice.