Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Goblin Mode McGoblin Modeface

 Each year, Oxford Languages, which produces the Oxford English Dictionary among other things, selects a word of the year, "a word or expression reflecting the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the past twelve months, one that has potential as a term of lasting cultural significance."  This year, the choice was opened up to online voting.  Over 300,000 people cast their votes over the course of two weeks and the winner was goblin mode

a slang term, often used in the expressions ‘in goblin mode’ or ‘to go goblin mode’ – is ‘a type of behaviour which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.’

The runners up were metaverse and #IStandWith.

The press I've seen about this tends to emphasize the online voting aspect of the selection, with the suggestion that those rowdy internet folks got one over on the stodgy old OED, but I think that misses a couple of important points.

First, the OED as an institution isn't particularly stodgy.  While Oxford might suggest the British power structure or Tom Lehrer's indelible image of "ivy-covered professors in ivy-covered halls" (leaving aside that that's more a US reference), the dictionary itself has historically been concerned with documenting how people actually use the English language, rather than trying to dictate what "proper English usage" might be.  It is descriptive rather than prescriptive.

The dictionary styles itself "the definitive record of the English language".  This is meant to include everything, including dialects from all over the world, terms of art for all kinds of trades and professions, archaic words from a thousand years ago and all manner of other English usage, including today's internet slang.

From the OED's point of view, goblin mode is a perfectly good term to research and define, as is anything else that people actually use.   If a bunch of internet trolls had decided to vote for glurglebyte or some other made-up word, and the OED actually went with it, that would have been a different matter, but there are plenty of examples of people using goblin mode prior to the online vote.   The word of the year page even gives a couple of examples from The Grauniad and The Times.

One might argue that people weren't using goblin mode all that much, and some other term, whether metaverse, #IStandWith or something else, might have made a better word of the year, but the fact that hundreds of thousands of people voted for it suggests that, even if the votes were meant ironically, there's something there that led people to coalesce around that particular word.  You could even argue that the online vote gives an otherwise ordinary bit of internet slang a much better chance of becoming "a term of lasting cultural significance".

The word of the year page goes further and argues that goblin mode is indeed a good word for a year in which people are finding their way out of a world of lockdowns and overflowing hospitals and questioning just which pre-pandemic norms are really worth keeping.   Sure, the Oxford folks may just be trying to put a brave face on being pwned, but to me it seems more like they saw the results and weren't particularly bothered.

I think there's another important point to note here.  While there have been plenty examples of internet-driven crowds doing bad things, or even horrible things,  it's worth remembering that this particular crowd of net.denizens was operating from a completely different mindset: As with Boaty McBoatface, they did it because it was fun, for sheer hack value.

While it would be a mistake to ignore bad behavior, it would also be a mistake to over-focus on it.  Like anywhere else, bad things can happen on the web without making the whole place a cesspit.  There's lots of questionable content out there and a certain amount of outright lies and hate, but there's also a lot of good information and not a little outright goofiness.  However much there are people out there trying to steer us toward conflict and anger, we still have choices about what we browse and what we post.

A few hundred thousand people upvoting a random bit of slang may be a drop in the bucket, but there are a lot more drops like it.  That says something about who's out there and what they want, just as surely as the nastiness elsewhere does.