Heatwaves, eSIMs, mixed reality: Words that are likely to trend in 2023

Terms we will all need to master before the new year is out

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 19 Jan 2023, 7:41 PM

After ending last year with the customary genuflection to various “Words of the Year” anointed by assorted dictionaries, it may seem perversely fitting not to let January pass without looking ahead to possible words we’d need to use in the New Year. After all, before the Covid pandemic, whoever thought we would become so rapidly familiar with terms like “herd immunity”, “social distancing”, “flatten the curve”, “viral load”, “spike protein” and “MRNA vaccines”? Why wouldn’t the same thing happen to us in 2023 that broadened our vocabularies from 2020 to 2022?

That venerable custodian of Anglophile wisdom, The Economist (which despite being a weekly magazine, insists on calling itself a newspaper), last year picked 23 terms it thought might catch on in the near future. Some of them are too technical, in this layman’s opinion, to ever become the stuff of daily conversation — phrases like “post-quantum cryptography” and “cislunar”, for instance. (The former would take too long to explain; the latter relates to the space between Earth and the orbit of the Moon). Some others are too culturally specific to be applicable to most of us, even if those in The Economist’s orbit disagree — a term like “TWaT cities”, for instance, which in the US relate to cities where the working week has been reduced to Tuesdays, Wednesday and Thursdays, with people working from home on Mondays and Fridays. But some of the others on The Economist list might well be words we will all need to master before the new year is out.

Take “synfuels”, for example. These are synthetic fuels, produced artificially rather than being made from oil —highly relevant in an era where governments are more determined than ever to turn away from fossil fuels and look for renewable sources of energy. Or “green hydrogen”, hydrogen made using renewable energy through techniques that use electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. This is both cheaper and less polluting than conventional fuel, and Western countries are already promoting the use of “green hydrogen” as the best form of renewable energy.

Indeed, climate change and environmental consciousness may continue to have as great an impact on our vocabulary in the proximate future as Covid has had. We’ll need to understand about “Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions”: respectively, those caused directly by a company’s activities (Scope 1), indirect emissions (Scope 2) and all other emissions that arise from the activities of a company’s suppliers and customers (Scope 3). These three kinds of emissions are going to be part of discussions about responsibility for global warming. Higher temperatures caused by climate change are leading to “aridification”, or the long-term drying of a region or an area — another neologism. Similarly, responses to increasing heatwaves will add to our vocabulary — cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tokyo are planning measures to reduce temperatures by introducing “cool roofs” (covered with white paint or reflective materials) and “cool pavements” (sidewalks treated with special coatings) to reflect sunlight away so that surfaces absorb less heat. Some may create “resilience hubs” — buildings that provide air-conditioned oases of refuge with drinking water, Internet access and phone-charging facilities — within cities to combat heatwaves.

If climate change will add to our list of regularly-used neologisms, technology will continue to intrude as well. One term is already widely in use: “eSIMs” have begun to supplant or replace SIM cards, the subscriber identity modules we’ve been inserting into our phones to connect to different networks. “eSIMs” have begun to replace physical chips with digital codes that are part of the software on your phone.

Thanks to technology, “reality” is already undergoing dizzying change. We already have “virtual reality”, when you wear a pair of goggles and a headset that immerse you in an alternative, computer-generated reality. Next there will be “augmented reality”, which will superimpose computer-generated elements onto your view of the real world. Watch out for “mixed reality”, which will go even farther by allowing real and virtual items to interact. What is real and what is digitally-generated will blend into each other in ways that may easily affect our vocabulary, our daily lives and one day, our sanity!


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