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"Quid Pro Quo" Wins Symbol of the Year Vote for 2019

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STANFORD, CA, FEB. 3, 2020 - Affiliates of the Symbolic Systems Program at Stanford University have chosen the phrase "quid pro quo" as the Symbol of the Year from 2019, in their eighth annual vote for notable symbols.

The winning symbol was nominated by Parke Bostrom (B.S., 1997), who wrote: "In 2019, President Trump’s withholding of aid to Ukraine was widely described as being (or not being) a 'quid pro quo' (i.e. a trade of 'this for that')." According to Bostrom: "The frequent use of this nebulous, legalistic, Latin phrase may have distracted from, rather than clarified, the underlying issues and evidence that ultimately resulted in Trump’s impeachment."

Other Notable Symbols from 2019 chosen by voters for their significance were:

  • 光復香港, 時代革命 ("free Hong Kong, revolution now") - nominated by Max Bodoia (B.S., 2014), who wrote: "Anti-government protests in Hong Kong began in June 2019 and continued mostly unabated through the end of the year. Although these protests are most relevant to the people living in Hong Kong and China, their effects have spilled over into the rest of the world as both companies and governments are forced to take a stance on the issue."
  • Greta Thunberg glaring at U.S. President Donald Trump - nominated by Emily Mandelbaum Lowry (B.S., 2002), who wrote: "Time Magazine's 2019 Person of the Year, Greta Thunberg became the face of climate change advocacy, and the image displaying her fury at US President Trump provided the perfect example of younger generations' anger at how world leaders have handled the climate crisis, punctuating her earlier "How Dare You" speech."
  • the Black hole photograph - nominated by Erik Zelikman (Class of 2020), who wrote: "This symbol had many powerful connotations: for many, it symbolized the increased inclusion of women in STEM fields and the value of more inclusive research. For others, it symbolized the value of international collaboration in science as nationalism and politics play a larger role."
  • "OK, Boomer" - nominated by Emily Mandelbaum Lowry (B.S., 2002), who wrote: "2019, a year of 'us vs. them' mentality, further highlighted the increasing generational divide between the Baby Boomer and Millennial generations. The phrase became a universal dismissal of perceived outmoded values and a way to highlight the diminishing social influence of the generation."
  • preferred pronouns - nominated by Parke Bostrom (B.S., 1997), who wrote: "The increased use of preferred pronouns, whereby a person can choose the gender of the pronouns by which other people should refer to them, denotes a radical and possibly long lasting change to our concepts of the self, others, and interpersonal relationships." Bostrom continued: "The constraints of biological reality," according to him, "are being replaced by personal preferences."
  • "they" - nominated by Emily Mandelbaum Lowry (B.S., 2002), who wrote: "Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year alludes to the awareness and exposure of gender as a pushback on the binary construct in American gender politics. The word can also reflect the increase in displays of solidarity and protest, as the Washington Post called 2019 the 'year of the street protest.'"
  • detained migrant children - nominated by Parke Bostrom (B.S., 1997), who wrote: "52% more migrant children were detained in the United States in fiscal year 2019 than in fiscal year 2018.  More, too, than in any previous year." As Bostrom saw it, "Apprehended migrant minors are a symbol of rising nationalism and political dysfunction in the United States and also in other countries."
  • wildfires - nominated by Al Sargent (B.S., 1991), who wrote: "This year's unprecedented large wildfires symbolize the catastrophic damage wrought by climate change. The photo I chose, of wildfires in eastern Australia visible from space, indicates just how massive these fires are."
  • the United States women's national soccer team - nominated by Parke Bostrom (B.S., 1997), who wrote: "Not only did the US Women's team win the World Cup, they used athletic fame and attention with unprecedented coordination and sophistication to advocate for equal pay and other causes there were important to some or all of the team members."
  • a border - nominated by Barbara Tversky (Emerita Faculty), who wrote: "Borders, barriers, boundaries (are) appearing everywhere in spite of research showing open borders promote welfare of those inside as well as those outside."
  • the melting earth - nominated by Todd Davies (Associate Director and Lecturer), who wrote: "Images of earth as melting or burning appeared on many signs during global climate protests in 2019. A picture of the earth as a melting ice cream cone has been used by the World Wildlife Fund since 2014, but no one version of the idea has dominated. Instead, sign-makers/artists have produced many variations, all of which convey a sense of urgency."
  • polarization - nominated by Barbara Tversky (Emerita Faculty), who wrote: "(This is a) visualization of polarization in Congress, symbolic of increasing polarization everywhere."
  • the Philosophy Talk logo - nominated by Andrew Waterman (M.S., 2003; B.S., 2002), who wrote: "In honor of Ken Taylor, the director of the Symbolic Systems Program who passed away unexpectedly this year, we nominated Philosophy Talk -- the radio show he co-hosted since 2005 that made philosophy meaningful and relatable to our everyday lives -- as a symbol of how he affected so many of his students, colleagues, and friends. Thanks, Ken."
  • plant-based meat (e.g. The Impossible Burger) - nominated by Emily Mandelbaum Lowry (B.S., 2002), who wrote: "As climate change becomes more ubiquitous, corporate companies have capitalized on the marketability of plant-based' food. In 2019, global marketing campaigns for both Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat products cemented 'plant-based' diets as more than a fad."
  • "climate strike", "climate justice", and "extinction rebellion" - nominated by Parke Bostrom (B.S., 1997), who wrote: "The new catch phrases and slogans of climate activists gained significant media exposure in 2019."
  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ("AOC") - nominated by Julián Óscar Álvarez (B.S., 2017), who wrote: "In 2019, AOC entered office as the youngest Congresswoman ever elected. This brought many other symbols into national discourse, like the use of Instagram on the campaign trail, in addition to increasingly mainstream support for progressive policies such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and free college tuition."
  • deepfake videos - nominated by Parke Bostrom (B.S., 1997), who wrote: "The quality of 'deepfake' videos improved significantly in 2019, resulting in governmental and non-governmental attempts to regulate them.  California outlawed political deepfake videos in the period 60 days prior to an election.  Facebook invested $10 million in pursuit of deepfake detection technology."
  • Notre Dame Cathedral - nominated by Todd Davies (Associate Director and Lecturer), who wrote: "The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was damaged heavily in an April 2019 fire, and what remains may not be stable enough to be saved according to its Rector. A massive fundraising effort and mobilization of public support for rebuilding the cathedral drew criticism for its expense, but Notre Dame remains a symbol of France."
  • U.S. Congressional hearings - nominated by Emily Mandelbaum Lowry (B.S., 2002), who wrote: "Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook testimony. Robert Mueller's Investigation testimony. The Impeachment congressional hearings." According to Lowry, Congressional Hearings became a notable symbol during the year because "Month after month in 2019, Congress found itself on Primetime TV, dominating the attention of US media. While the topics changed, the format remained largely the same, creating a performance for the nation." Jimmy Tobin (B.S., 2013), submitted a similar nomination: "Person in power testifying in front of congress."

The 20 recognized symbols were chosen from 34 nominations submitted between December 23rd and 27th, 2019, with voting taking place December 29th, 2019, through January 4th, 2020. Nominations appeared on the ballot in the words of the nominators. Selection indicated only that the symbol had been significant during the year, rather than an endorsement of any point of view associated with it. One hundred and forty-eight alumni/ae, students, faculty, and staff affiliated with the Program cast ballots in a system in which each voter could vote for any nominated symbol as Symbol of the Year, Other Notable Symbol, or neither.

All of the program's alums, current students, and faculty/staff were eligible to vote. The ballot stated that the purpose of the vote was "to recognize the important role that symbols play in our world" ("as affiliates of the Symbolic Systems Program").

The idea for a "Symbol of the Year" was inspired by the many annual "of the year" designations and awards that are put out by various organizations, especially the American Dialect Society's annual "Word of the Year" vote. Stanford's Symbolic Systems Program focuses on human and computational systems that use symbols to communicate and to represent information.

For "Criteria", the ballot stated the following:

"The Symbol of the Year need not be new to this year, but should have achieved widespread cultural importance during the year. A symbol is both used and understood to represent a concept, object, location, event, or linguistic unit. Types of symbols include the following:

  • a flag or emblem (e.g. the Olympic flag, the AIDS awareness ribbon, a police badge, a union label)
  • a costume or garment (e.g. a graduation gown, a cowboy hat, the Guy Fawkes mask)
  • a grapheme, written character, or glyph (e.g. the '+' sign, the lowercase 'e', the Helvetica 'A')
  • a hand signal or gesture (e.g. the 'A-Okay' sign, a military salute)
  • an iconic object or animal (e.g. the Statue of Liberty, the black cat)
  • a symbolic place (e.g. the agora, the Kremlin)
  • an ideogram (e.g. the peace symbol, the caduceus symbol of commerce)
  • a logo (e.g. the Red Cross logo, the Apple Inc. logo)
  • a shape (e.g. the crescent, the upside-down triangle)
  • a pictogram (e.g. the International Symbol of Access, the Universal Recycling Symbol)
  • a screen icon (e.g. the magnifying glass/search icon, the trash icon)
  • an auditory symbol or acoustic signal (e.g. the train whistle, the Intel bongs, the SOS prosign)
  • a tactile symbol (e.g. a braille character, a TSBVI Standard Tactile Symbol)
  • a symbolic action or event (e.g. the lighting of a candle, the sun setting)
  • an iconic photograph or image (e.g. Migrant Mother, Guerrillero Heroico)
  • a symbolic work or performance (e.g. the Star Spangled Banner, Romeo and Juliet)
  • a color or pattern (e.g. Navy blue, the Royal Stewart tartan)
  • a posted sign or signal (e.g. an exit sign, a red light)
  • an abbreviation or acronym (e.g. 'lbs.', 'USA')
  • an iconic person or group (e.g. the Pope, the Freedom Riders)
  • a name or nickname (e.g. 'Betty Crocker', 'Joe the Plumber')
  • a word or phrase (e.g. 'email', 'Win one for the Gipper!')
  • a mascot or mythical/imaginary character (e.g. Ronald McDonald, Aphrodite, Yogi Bear)"

"Lots of things can be symbols," said the program's Associate Director, Todd Davies, after the first Symbol of the Year vote seven years ago, "but relatively few things actually are. Being a symbol is an acquired status, that gets established through use. Symbols can obviously become notable because the things they represent are notable. But we wanted to draw attention to the significance that symbols themselves have, as symbols, beyond what they represent, and to get ourselves and others thinking about the role they play in contemporary life."