By Theodore Hodge
For the past several decades, lexicographers and other linguistic organizations have observed a tradition of naming a word, or a group of words, as word(s) of the year. This year, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary has chosen the word “surreal” as its word of the year. A short definition reads: “very strange or unusual” or “having the quality of a dream”.
During the year, I had many surrealistic moments, some personal and upfront, others happening on a wider global stage. The first that comes to mind is the story of the refugee and migrant crises from the Middle East and Africa to Europe. Night after night, the stories of the victims of war and economic starvation filled our television screens. Listening to one thoughtless commentary after another, it seemed pretty clear a human life is cheap and expandable. Or perhaps it would make better sense to recall the Orwellian political observation, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” I couldn’t imagine such a capricious loss of Western European or American lives on Middle Eastern or African shores. There were loud noises blaming the hapless victims invading and encroaching our spaces without invitation, ignoring sovereignty; but as usual, there was deafening silence in pointing out the brutes and savages spiking these various crises. As a matter of fact, the brutal dictators had their enablers and backers. That was beyond surreal; it was saddening.
By midyear, a political bombshell went off in the name of BREXIT; Great Britain had withdrawn from the European Union. It was somehow ironic that the empire described earlier during the 19th and early 20th centuries as “the empire upon which the sun never sets”, now seemed to be moving into self-isolation in the name of sovereignty. But could sovereignty eventually lead to self-strangulation? Perhaps, in the name of democracy, the Brits had given the unwashed commoners, the masses, too much rope and they were now hanging themselves. Clearly a case study is now in the making for future political theorists to ponder. In the meantime, it is clearly surreal!
Shortly thereafter, things moved in a more positive direction on the home front for me, albeit on a much lighter scale: The Cleveland Cavaliers won its first national (or is it world?) championship. The Cavaliers had come to the verge of winning in several previous seasons, but all efforts had led to futility, leaving its fans heartbroken. This year seemed to be no different as their principal challengers and rivals jumped to an impressive start winning even more games than any other team in NBA history, including those teams led by the legendary Michael Jordan! In the final series, the Golden State Warriors jumped to a 3-1 lead in what was a 7-game series. One loss from elimination, the Cavaliers gallantly fought back, against all odds, and won 3 games in a row and the NBA trophy! Now, if that wasn’t surreal, nothing else was.
A few months later, the Cleveland Indians came very close to winning baseball’s most coveted pennant, in the World Series. The Indians had not won the championship since 1948. More improbable was the other contender, the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs had not won that prize since 1908; the last time they had appeared as contenders was in 1948. Somehow mysteriously, as statistics go; these two teams, whose fans had been devastated and frustrated for decades, found themselves at the zenith of the baseball world. Cleveland quickly seized control of the series by leading 3-1 in a 7-game series. Miraculously, the Cubs recovered and won the series, ending the longest championship drought in modern sports history in North America.
What was even more surreal was the story of why the Cubs had not won in so long. According to the legend, a fan’s pet goat was denied entry to a World Series game in 1945, due to its strong odor. The enraged fan decided to boycott the game unless his pet was allowed. He then purportedly cursed the team and vowed it would never win another championship. For over seventy-years, the incredible curse gained notoriety as the Cubs lost one year after another. Fans in Chicago and over the world, the vast majority of whom were not even alive when the curse was activated, cried and cheered as the Billy Goat curse was finally overcome. After three scores ten, the Cubs had finally outlived the curse.
What I found more surreal was not that the Cubs had finally won a World Series, but that so many had believed in a mere curse. I could understand if such a superstition had been entertained in Africa, South America or Asia, where many superstitious beliefs are commonplace; but in the United States of America? I found it most fascinating to watch and listen to people who think themselves above that sort of thing, and deride others who do. Superstition controlling the fate of a sports team even for generations yet unborn? Now, that’s surreal!
But the Chicago Cubs fans were not alone in attributing their losing ways to a curse; the Boston Red Sox suffered one for 86 years! Theirs was the Curse of the Bambino, and the story goes: The team had sold the rights of its star player, Babe Ruth, to the NY Yankees. According to Wikipedia, “Before that point, the Red Sox had been one of the most successful professional baseball franchises, winning the first World Series and amassing five World Series titles…” Their winning ways came to an abrupt end after the deal. The Red Sox fans and others talked about a curse that lasted over eight decades until 2004 when the team finally won a World Series title. Perhaps 2016 finally put an end to such an unscientific and pagan belief system, contrary to professed sophistication and enlightenment in America; but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Writer’s note: I do applaud the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s choice of word of the year, ‘surreal’. In Part Two of this article to follow shortly, I will continue my thoughts on the word surreal, and two other words, ‘post-truth’ and ‘xenophobia’, chosen by the Oxford English Dictionary and Dictionary.com, respectively. Finally, I will address the most surreal event of the year, the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, and the importance of these words to the process and culture that made the year in review a most memorable one, to the chagrin of many.