Words Have Power
Credit: Kunal Mehta / Shutterstock
Barth Keck

Color me unimpressed. I found the 2022 Word of the Year winners from the major dictionaries a bit underwhelming.

Oxford Dictionaries let the public choose its winner for the first time and it shows; “Goblin mode” took the honors.

Goblin mode is a “type of behavior which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations,” explains Oxford. “Seemingly, it captured the prevailing mood of individuals who rejected the idea of returning to ‘normal life’ [after Covid], or rebelled against the increasingly unattainable aesthetic standards and unsustainable lifestyles exhibited on social media.”

Collins Dictionaries, meanwhile, chose “permacrisis,” a term that describes “an extended period of instability and insecurity.” Collins, located in the United Kingdom, chose the word because it relate[s] to ongoing crises the UK and the world have faced and continue to face, including political instability, the war in Ukraine, climate change, and the cost-of-living crisis.”

I get the rationale for these choices, but they seem too obscure to gain recognition as the preeminent words of 2022. How many people have even heard of these two terms? At least one other choice seemed more fitting: “gaslighting.”

“A driver of disorientation and mistrust, gaslighting is ‘the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage’,” notes Merriam-Webster regarding its winning word. “2022 saw a 1740% increase in lookups for gaslighting, with high interest throughout the year.”

Now that 2022 is over (thankfully), I’m adding my own choice for a word I hope becomes 2023’s Word of the Year. It’s one I learned for the first time last year, and it’s one I’d like to see become commonplace due to the optimism and hopefulness it encompasses: “Mudita.”

Mudita is a word from Sanskrit and Pali that has no counterpart in English. It means sympathetic or unselfish joy, or joy in the good fortune of others.”

I came across this word while reading about, of all things, my new favorite baseball player, Adley Rutschman. A catcher with the Baltimore Orioles (my hometown team), Rutschman was called up from the minors almost two months into the season when the team was 16-24. Afterward, the team went 66-53 and missed the playoffs by just three games in a season most pundits had written off before it even began.

The Rutschman effect – his defensive proficiency, his ability to communicate with pitchers, his offensive aptitude – was obvious to anyone who watched him play. But there was more to Adley Rutschman. There was, in a word, Mudita.

“It’s basically the expression of joy in other people’s accomplishments,” said Joe Taylor, who coached Rutschman’s high-school summer teams in Oregon. “So, basically unselfishness and just a love for your teammates. That’s the one thing: He has so much fun, and he has so much fun seeing his teammates be successful.”

Rutschman’s Mudita was most apparent in the way he jubilantly embraced pitchers after a win. The man was simply a picture of joy – derived not from his own accomplishments, but from the success of others.

Catcher Adley Rutschman embraces relief pitcher Felix Bautista following an Orioles’ victory last season.

“Mudita” is synonymous with another word: “freudenfreude.”

“Finding pleasure in another person’s good fortune is what social scientists call freudenfreude,” explains a New York Times article. The opposite of schadenfreude, freudenfreude is “a term (inspired by the German word for ‘joy’) that describes the bliss we feel when someone else succeeds, even if it doesn’t directly involve us.”

“Freudenfreude” is cool, but I like “mudita” better. It rolls off the tongue more easily. It’s more pleasing to the ear. And it’s rooted in peaceful, Buddhist ideology.

“Mudita is described as an inner wellspring of joy that is always available, in all circumstances,” explains the website Learn Religions. “It is extended to all beings, not just to those close to you.”

How much better our world would be if we all sought Mudita, if even just sporadically. Instead of reacting to bad news or disappointment with vitriol and anger – as many people do now at public meetings or on social media – we could look for and appreciate the good things that happen to others.

If Mudita works for Adley Rutschman of the Orioles, it’s good enough for me. And it would be sublime if we all worked to make it 2023’s Word of the Year.

Barth Keck is in his 32nd year as an English teacher and 18th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

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