“Guilty pleasure” is out; “goblin mode” is in. We are no longer apologizing for spending a weekend watching Grey’s Anatomy in our pajamas or standing in front of the fridge in our dark kitchen, eating shredded cheese straight from the bag. 

Or at least, so say approximately 318,956 English speakers (less than .02% of the 1.5 billion souls who speak English as their first or second language.

In 2022, for the first time ever, the Oxford English Dictionary solicited the opinions of the public in selecting the Word of the Year. They collected over 340,000 responses, the majority of whom voted for “goblin mode” as the 2022 Word of the Year. 

The OED defines “goblin mode” as a “type of behavior which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.” 

Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Languages, said the word “resonates with all of us who are feeling a little overwhelmed at this point.” 

The point in question being an era of acknowledgement that we will, perhaps, grapple forever with the complex, intersecting social consequences of a global pandemic, a violently polarized political landscape, and the unknowable and omnipotent algorithms adjudicating so much of our information access and relationships. 

“It’s a relief to acknowledge that we’re not always the idealized, curated selves that we’re encouraged to present on our Instagram and TikTok feeds,” Grathwohl continues. 

Grathwohl possibly deserves the accolade for “understatement of the year.” 

It’s a bit ironic: “goblin mode” is a rebellion against the truly twisted and grotesque culture of performance, farce, and pretense and is, itself, a linguistic derivative of fantasy and disguise. 

I wonder how Tolkien, who worked mostly on the w section of the OED early in his career, would feel about “goblin mode”? How would the man who wrangled the reputedly wicked etymology of “walrus” and “waggle” feel about the word of the year? 

The man did discuss goblins at some length.

In The Hobbit, the enemy hordes are called “goblins,” but they have almost all the characteristics of creatures later termed “orcs.” In Lord of the Rings, orcs are given the much darker backstory of having once been elves. 

Tolkien’s goblins are subterranean creatures who senselessly crave darkness and violence. I do not recall a love of treasure being specifically described, but I believe Tolkien’s intent was to emphasize an irrational, purposeless greed and bloodlust which afforded neither pleasure nor comfort, in comparison to the hobbits. 

Which leads me to believe that Tolkien would have contested the term “goblin mode” and advocated instead for “hobbit mode.” Tolkien is, after all, somewhat well known for his annoyance with Walt Disney’s characterization of the dwarfs in Snow White. 

“You’ve got it the wrong way around,” I imagine Tolkien saying. “Hobbits are the creatures who disregard the whims and expectations of the big folk of the larger world. They are the ones shamelessly indulging in honest ease and homely comforts. Goblins crave without satisfaction or sense; hobbits enjoy.” 

A great advocate for fantasy and “escapism” as a necessary way of living and learning, I think Tolkien would be in full favor of “fantasy modes.” 

We like “goblin mode” so much because it’s a persona through which to interact with the world, one of many gloves and guises we use to go through life. We may have a “professional mode,” for example, for the polite and impersonal tasks of the workplace. Some of us may feel like we have an “adult mode”—a guise put on for the disagreeable project of making doctor’s appointments, doing taxes, and going to the DMV. 

Perhaps we should have other modes as well. I suggest “unicorn mode”-—acknowledging and behaving in accordance with one’s identity as a rare and exquisite creature, committing to consort only with those whose hearts and motives are pure and, consequently becoming somewhat difficult to find.

Or perhaps “nymph mode”—indulging in delight toward the natural world, partaking of its sacred aspect and becoming part of it. 

Interestingly, the runner-up to “goblin mode” was “metaverse” with 14,484 votes. 

“Metaverse” is the term for an idea rapidly transitioning from hypothetical to reality: an alternate digital reality in which life can be fully, immersively conducted. The metaverse presents the ultimate opportunity to pick a mask or persona for ourselves. 

Like “goblin mode,” “metaverse” acknowledges our experience of needing and wanting to be both seen and disguised. We long to shed, as Grathwohl says, the filtered performance of our social media accounts, but, to a much lesser degree perhaps, we also know that our world requires us to shift between modes and roles. We see appeal in guises, personas, and avatars that help us navigate our multifaceted world. 

I think perhaps Tolkien understood better than most the necessity and discomfort of a changing world. He wrote of fading elves and a world of shining lies and homely truths. 

And maybe the lesson he would teach is to go “hobbit mode”—to see our friends as their true selves, best selves, and worst selves, in goblin mode or Gollum mode, and stick by them, as loyal and true as we can be. (And fully delight in a good snack.)

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