As 2022 draws to an end, it is the season of “word of the year” all around. Oxford has declared “goblin mode” as its word of the year while Collins Dictionary said it is “permacrisis”. Merriem-Webster announced “gaslighting” as its word of the year while Cambridge declared it as “homer”.

Oxford classifies “goblin mode” as slang, which describes “a type of behaviour which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations”. “Gaslighting”, according to Merriem-Webster, “is the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.”

Two of the four words this year, gaslighting and goblin mode, describe emotions that we feel but presumably did not have a “word” for.

Does having a word for what one feels make things better?

According to a 2007 study by the University of California, Los Angeles, that involved brain imaging by psychologists, verbalising feelings reduces the intensity of sadness, anger and pain. Putting feelings into words, thus, can have a therapeutic effect.

Recognising emotions – or labelling them, as psychologists say – is the crucial first step in managing emotions. But it is more difficult than it seems. Many people find it difficult to pinpoint their emotions and frequently, the most obvious description is not the truest.

Giving a word to how one feels helps with “emotional agility”, which is the practice of using one’s feelings as information to assist and guide them instead of attempting to change or control emotions. It starts with correctly identifying the underlying feeling and emotion.

At the same time, the “labelling culture” has drawn some backlash. “You’re not ‘going goblin mode’, you have clinical depression,” wrote one Twitter user.

This statement emphasises the risk of trivialising psychological problems by offending with humour those who experience depression and find it difficult to socialise and leave the house. It also highlights the risk of creating a funny and memorable name for a certain mood that ends up justifying and normalising its symptoms – preventing their treatment and resolution.

The emergence of “goblin mode” highlights two phenomena through which the social media discourse is articulated today: first, the urge to invent increasingly bizarre names to explain phenomena that have existed for years. The second is the increasingly polarised or exaggerated view of mental health through the lens of social media.

The first phenomenon is a direct offshoot of the hashtag system that rewards the brief and the instantly recognisable. This has grown in recent years in response to the proliferation of search engine optimisation, or SEO, techniques and the aesthetics of social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram.

These terms typify people’s ways of being, summarising mental states or intricate evocative worlds in a single word.

Though not inherently wrong, this tends to change and rewrite how things are understood. For instance, the use of clinical words for disorders such as anxiety or depression to describe typical emotional states, may lead to people to claim they are depressed when they may actually just be upset or sad.

A term like “social anxiety” has evolved from describing a psychological problem to being used for any unpleasant situation. As a result, individuals enduring an unpleasant situation but who do not have a chronic disorder as well as those seriously affected by agoraphobia or hikokomori syndrome – two possible scientific aliases of goblin mode – are seen in the same psychologist’s office.

According to the National Health Service, agoraphobia is a complication of a panic disorder. It causes a person to fear being in situations difficult to escape from or in which things may go wrong. Hikokomori syndrome refers to an extreme form of social withdrawal or reclusiveness.

A lot of online literature on the “goblin mode” does not take depression or other persistent mental illnesses seriously. Depression, despite seemingly resembling “goblin mode”, is fundamentally different and more dangerous.

The silver lining, however, is that the mental health discourse and awareness is much stronger today than before the Covid-19 pandemic. Changes in society and the way we think also reflect in the “word of the year”.

Oxford’s word of the year for 2021 was VAX, while for 2020, its list of “Words of an Unprecedented Year” included “lockdown”, “shelter in place”, “circuit breaker” among others as the world endured the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Its word for 2019 was “climate emergency”, for 2018 was “toxic” and for 2017 it was “youthquake”. For 2016, it was “post-truth”, in the wake of the United States Presidential election which saw Donald Trump win, and the United Kingdom’s referendum on exiting the European Union – “Brexit”.

The word of the year for 2015 was simply the emoji 😂 – “face with tears of joy” – a clear indication, if anything, that it is great to talk about our feelings and emotions now more than ever.

A decade of the ‘word of the year’ by Oxford:

2014 Vape
2013 Selfie
2012 Omnishambles (UK) and GIF (US)
2011 Squeezed middle
2010 Big society (UK) and refudiate (US)
2009 Simples (UK) and unfriend (US)
2008 Credit crunch (UK) and hypermiling (US)
2007 Carbon footprint (UK) and locavore (US)
2006 Bovvered (UK) and carbon-neutral (US)
2005 Sudoku (UK) and podcast (US)
2004 Chav

Credit: Oxford Languages

Zulekha Shakoor Rajani is a counselor and educator in Bangalore. She can be reached at Her Twitter handle is @ZulekhaRajani.