Decoding ‘Authentic’: Merriam-Webster’s fascinating choice for Word of the Year 2023

Merriam-Webster has chosen “authentic” as its 2023 Word of the Year.

Strong reasons for “authentic” as 2023 Word of the Year

  • Rise of AI and ChatGPT: What is authentic? We will start to ask ourselves more and more, Who really wrote what? 2023 is only the start.
  • Digital facades: People presenting their idealized selves on Instagram. What about their authentic, messy self?
  • Celebrities like Taylor Swift and Prince Harry: striving for authenticity in their public narratives
  • Misinformation: The lies posted online and how people weirdly follow them.
  • Elon Musk’s X: He claims he wants more ‘authentic’ use on the platform.

Questionable justifications

Some reasons cited for ‘authentic’ being the Word of the Year seem less specific to 2023, potentially representing ongoing trends:

  • Social Media: In theory, people crave authentic content. But that’s nothing new. We’ve had reality TV for two decades. We’ve had social media for over a decade. 2023 continues this trend.
  • Workplace Dynamics: Post-pandemic, some say there’s been a shift towards more authentic interactions and work environments. However, working from home goes against this. I’d say there’s less authenticity in the workplace now.
  • Consumer Behavior: Consumers prefer authentic brands that align with their values and offer transparency about their products and processes. Again, this has always been true, right?
  • Mental Health Awareness: Authenticity in expressing emotions and struggles became central in mental health discussions, encouraging honesty and vulnerability. I’d chalk this one up more to 2021 with Simone Biles gracefully bowing out of the Tokyo Olympics.

Merriam-Webster’s claim

Merriam-Webster says: “A high-volume lookup most years, authentic saw a substantial increase in 2023”.

That’s odd. Are people really looking up the word “authentic”? Are we really that philosophical of a culture?

I would assume 99.9% of the people using the dictionary fall into several categories:

  1. Spelling: How to spell a tricky word
  2. New vocabulary: A new word comes into use, and they want know what it means
  3. Complex words: An existing word with complex meaning. People use the dictionary to understand its meaning. Today, I had to look up nonagenarian.

As for authentic, everyone knows what that means, right? Why else would you be looking up authentic? To ponder the philosophy of what is authentic? LOL. Let’s not overestimate America. Let’s get real. If the regular American is looking up a word they already know, it will be some potty word. Now THAT would be authentic!

Searches for ‘authentic’ on Google

Since we don’t have access to the list of search queries for online dictionaries, let’s go to the next best thing—the searches people do on Google. Have those increased over time?

Searches on Google for “authentic” have remained stable since 2004.

With Google Trends, usually there’s some curve up or down. Or at least a spike. Here, it’s just flat. Not trending in any way at all.

But to be fair, I can’t imagine people just wanting to search for the word “authentic”. Just by itself. That’s odd. People instead would be looking up things like:

authentic information
authentic document
authentic source
authentic account
authentic record

Let’s look up the trends for these phrases.

Mostly flat noise appears, but “authentic information” (the blue line) does show an uptick recently.

You can use Google to search for definitions of words. If you search: define authentic, Google will give you a definition. Do people use this? Let’s put “define authentic” into Google Trends.

WHOA. Look at that. The volume of searches for “define authentic” outpaces all the other search terms for authentic. Huh. People really do search for the definition. I’m shocked. However, the search over time is still pretty flat. There is no clear up or down trend.

Book Usage Trends

Another tool we have in our word arsenal is Google Ngram Viewer, which graphs the usage of words in books since 1800.

Since 1988, we see an uptick in “authentic” used in books.

Currently, this chart goes up to only 2019. These are books, after all, so they take time to process. Since Chat GPT was released to the public in November 2022, books generated by AI started to skyrocket the following year. In the coming years, we’ll get an avalanche of AI-generated books. When we get 2022 and the following years into this tool, it’ll be interesting to see how often “authentic” appears in books.

Have other synonyms for authentic have the same trend? Let’s look up mentions of authentic, real, genuine, original, true, reliable, credible, trustworthy.

Authentic gets buried in a flat line. But look at “true”. It dips down down, then nose-dives from 1967-1978. Remains flat for the 1980s. Then, in 1994, it started to come back up. Does that mean the 1970s and 1980s didn’t care for things true?

I’m still curious about how authentic stacks up against the other words in that flat line. Let’s remove real, true, and original to return the line to a good comparison.

Lots of movement here. Check out “reliable.” Peaking in the 1980s and then dipping down.

I don’t have much more of a point here anymore; I’m just chatting randomly. Would that be considered authentic?

Side note on Google Ngram Viewer

It’s so great that Google offers this books word frequency tool. Sure, they scanned in 50 million books, and some of them might copyrighted, but at least they are offering this great analysis tool to look at the data.

It’s wonderful goodwill. And I don’t think running the search tool takes THAT much processing power. Whenever someone searches the database, Google is not querying millions of books. Instead, Google outputs all various combinations of words from all the books. You are searching inside that exported set of words.

Steven Schmatz, Former Software Engineering Intern at Google, explains on Quora:

An n-gram is a linguistic structure which is a series of n co-occurring words. For example, let’s say you have the sentence “the car is red”. You have the following n-grams:

  • 1-grams (unigrams): [“the”, “car”, “is”, “red”]
  • 2-grams (bigrams): [“the car”, “car is”, “is red”]
  • 3-grams (trigrams): [“the car is”, “car is red”]
  • 4-grams (quadgrams): [“the car is red”]

Google sources their n-grams from literature uploaded to Google Books, a corpus of digitized books. They scraped all of the 1-gram counts, 2-gram counts, through 5-gram counts for each book and released several public datasets!

Imagine if Twitter allowed access like this into their archives. They have 15 years of people talking online. What words would be most common? How would words trend over time? Just last year, people could query Twitter’s API and find out. But now that’s all shutdown. It is ironic that Eon Musk wants Twitter to be more authentic, yet he shuts down access to the site’s data. In a way, that makes it less authentic. It becomes less transparent.

Musk shut down that access to analyze tweets, because he wasn’t making money off it. Yet, Google can offer this tool. If Google can offer the tool, couldn’t also Twitter? Just do it like Google. Once a year, export out the words. It’s not like the entire Twitter archive has to be searched. That would takes lots of processing power. Just offer an archive of all the Tweets in an N-gram fashion.

Header photograph of “Authentic” inside a pair of a jeans is by Flickr user Ara Pehlivanian (Creative Commons license). One of the other top results on Flickr for a search of “authentic” was ironically this image:

I don’t know how any more NOT authentic this could be.

  1. The writing on the blackboard is clearly fake.
  2. The hand is photoshopped in.
  3. The hand itself looks like a mannequin.
  4. Heck, even the text kerned bad. The space between the A and U shows that this wasn’t even written by hand and then photoshopped on. This text was done with some imitation font. At least handwrite the text and photoshop it onto an image of a chalkboard.

This image is like fake layered on top, layered on top of fake. With all these layers of fake you could say it’s a fake cake. Hey, maybe that can be the word of 2024. Fake cake.

And one more amusing result when searching for images that represent authenticity. What results would Google give when doing an image search for authentic? Well, apparently, Google thinks this is a good approach:

Yes. Frozen deep dish pizza in a box is authentic Chicago pizza. I have to admit, whoever did this product photoshoot did truly pull the pizza straight out of a box. It looks like a crusty frozen pizza with random cheese scattered on part of the pizza. Authentic!

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Tom Saaristo
7 months ago

Savvy! I vote for Authentic to be 2023’s word of the year. “Authentic” is having its day in the food world as well, the question being “what does it mean to be authentic when we’re talking about a global food (tacos) yet has very strong roots among many communities (across the whole of Mexico)?”

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