2016 is drawing to an end, and nobody can say it was an unexceptional year. On the contrary, it was extraordinary and at the same time a year of great tragedies.

"Extraordinary" and "exceptional" because hardly anyone in the news predicted the victory of Brexit or Donald Trump in the US presidential election, and who knew that David Cameron would resign and be replaced by Theresa May, the second woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

But 2016 will also be remembered for the mass murders in Aleppo, and the subsequent refugee crisis; the evil acts of terrorism in Europe, and the mass killings in the US.

And if that were not enough, 2016 will surely be remembered as the year when musicians of the calibre of Bowie, Cohen, and Prince died. And movie legends such as Alan Rickman, Carrie Fisher, and her mother Debbie Reynolds, passed away.

Is there a word or phrase that means extraordinary and tragic at the same time? I would like a word, an expression or short phrase that sums up this historical year.

  • 2016 was the year of _______
  • 2016 will go down in history as ______
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Dec 30, 2016 at 14:13
  • 1
    'unprecedented' and 'surreal' fit the second sentence. For the first sentence, what part of speech are you looking for? Are you looking for a single word there or a phrase? That is, do you have any suggestions to prime us?
    – Mitch
    Dec 30, 2016 at 15:14
  • 1
    @Mitch the two sentences are there only as a guidance.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 30, 2016 at 15:15
  • While I personally think they should be, are the results of the UK referendum and the US election to be grouped in with the concept of "tragedy" you're looking for? Dec 31, 2016 at 20:00
  • 3
    Let's hope the year is not prophetic. As an aside, that the death of Vera Rubin passed largely unnoticed compared to that of Carrie Fisher is dispiriting. All Ms. Rubin did was discover more than 1/4 of the universe. But, hey, you can't see dark matter on TV so who cares?
    – ab2
    Jan 1, 2017 at 21:09

9 Answers 9


Given the series of negative events, what about annus horribilis:

  • a Latin phrase, meaning "horrible year". It is complementary to annus mirabilis, which means "wonderful year"; however, annus mirabilis is a traditional term, while annus horribilis is of relatively recent coinage.

  • Although the phrase was used in 1891 to describe 1870, the year in which the Roman Catholic church defined the dogma of papal infallibility, it was brought to prominence by Queen Elizabeth II in a speech to Guildhall on 24 November 1992, marking the 40th anniversary of her accession, in which she described the year as an annus horribilis.


  • 12
    Heh heh! He said "annus"! Dec 29, 2016 at 18:14
  • 7
    @Kristina Lopez So did She. And it's Her English. Dec 29, 2016 at 19:00
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA - probably "breathtaking" may suggest the two contrasting aspects: extremely impressive or beautiful, or extremely bad or shocking. macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/breathtaking
    – user66974
    Dec 29, 2016 at 19:46
  • 1
    @KristinaLopez Indeed she did not! Dec 29, 2016 at 20:05
  • 1
    The year has been horrible for the left mainly. So while it doesn't harm to have this opinion, it only applies to about ~50 % of people, and I wouldn't use the phrase if I wanted to convey an unbiased message
    – mike3996
    Dec 30, 2016 at 11:35

To borrow from Shakespeare:

“Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this son of York;

And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”

(Richard III, Act-I, Scene-I, Lines 1-4)

Using not the metaphor of winter as disappointment and sadness, but a whole year,

we could say:

2016 was the year of our discontent.

...with the hope that 2017 will be better.


I first thought momentous

Of utmost importance; of outstanding significance or consequence

or inauspicious (unfavorable, unlucky) for a more negative tilt, but for fitting your example sentences, the word extreme(s) seemed best.


  • being of a high or of the highest degree or intensity (extreme cold, extreme difficulty)
  • exceeding what is usual or reasonable; immoderate (extreme behaviour)
  • very strict, rigid, or severe; drastic (an extreme measure)


  • the highest or furthest degree (often in the phrases in the extreme, go to extremes)

Wondering if someone had already coined 2016 as the "year of extremes" I found this.

It’s been a year of extremes, with record intensity in politics, war, and even weather. So it’s no surprise that Oscar has had a year of extremes as well.

and this (among the many hits).

From Brexit to demonetisation: 2016 as the year of extremes

Here is a list of events which show that 2016 was a year of extremes

The year 2016 saw a bitter US presidential election, the Syrian civil war taking a bloody turn in Aleppo and the demonetisation scheme announced by the Narendra Modi government. While it is the time to look forward and see what the new year has in store for us, it is also the time to look back and see what the world went through in the last 365 days.

  • 3
    Personally, I like your suggestion of momentous better than extreme: 2016 was a year of momentous events.
    – J.R.
    Dec 30, 2016 at 14:42

I'm going to go with awful, in no small part to the dual-nature of the word.


  1. inspiring awe
  2. filled with awe: as
    a. obsolete : afraid, terrified
    b. deeply respectful or reverential
  3. extremely disagreeable or objectionable

There's no way around it, 2016 was an awful year.

  • 10
    That's quite clever, pity that its old meaning (full of awe) has become almost obsolete.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 29, 2016 at 20:22
  • I feel like there's some sort of awful/awesome wordplay to be had here. Awfulsome? Dec 29, 2016 at 20:23
  • 4
    Historically, terrific would have been a better word for this. However, its modern meaning is probably inappropriate...
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 29, 2016 at 22:50
  • 1
    Terrific year of terror
    – Unrelated
    Dec 30, 2016 at 16:01
  • Speak for yourself. I had a great year! Dec 30, 2016 at 17:25

To quote the great man himself, 2016 is a year that will live in infamy

famous for something considered bad

Cambridge Dictionary

So it doesn't quite fit your scentences, but with some minor modifications it can

2016 was an infamous year
2016 will go down in history for its infamous events.


After much thought, I'm going with this:

2016 is the year of "provocation"

I chose "provocation" because of the primary definition everyone thinks of (from MWO):

1:  the act of provoking:  incitement

but also for the less known definition and it's sister word, "provocative", which can have negative and positive connotation:

2:  something that provokes, arouses, or stimulates

2016 has certainly had its share of incitement, between Brexit and the terribly divisive US election, but it has also had a large helping of provocation through the arousal (both heightening of emotions-wise and awakening) of the world's citizenry that in our age of instant access via internet to news and information, there is an insidious new movement "out there" to sell fake news and shamelessly promote propaganda. I think we are all a little more jaded and a little more skeptical for it.

But for those looking for an actual positive memory from 2016...let's not forget the epic winning of the World Series by my own hometown's Chicago Cubs...after a 108-year drought! Woop! Woop! :-)


2016 was a year of barbarism.

Seventy years after the end of WWII, we had forgotten how awful people could be to other people. We were reminded by Rwanda and Srebrenica, but these were anomalies, which we would never let happen again.

Now we know better. Let's hope that, five or twenty-five years from now, 2016 will not be seen as the harbinger year.

(The linked dictionary definition of barbarism "extreme cruelty or brutality" understates some of the events of 2016.)

  • Harbinger upvoted
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 2, 2017 at 0:28

For many, Brexit was considered a victory, as was Trump's winning the elections, but both phenomena were "out of the blue". Likewise the deaths of renowned celebrities, who were not elderly, happened out of the blue. The British Conservative party colour is also "blue" while to be "blue" means to be sad and melancholy.

2016 was the "out of the blue" year.
If 2016 was a colour, it would be "blue".

Unfortunately, this doesn't work for the Republicans whose party color is red.

Out of the blue (idiom)
"Out of the blue" is an informal English language idiom that describes an event that occurs unexpectedly, without any warning or preparation. It is used as an adverb. The "blue" in the phrase refers to the sky, one from which a sudden plane falling is unexpected, thus it comes 'out of the blue'.

A more pathos description of 2016 might be

2016 was the year of tears shed

The tears shed could be tears of joy or of deep sadness.


2016, The Year of Change

So much changed in the last year; from Trump to Theresa May, Brexit to Boris, Russia to refugees, Syria to celebrity deaths this has most definitely been a year of change—even the size of the Toblerone has changed!

The only down-side to this is perhaps its universality; I'm sure next year will be just as much a year of change.

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