Authentic. It’s Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2023 and while the choice seems driven by the rise of AI in the public consciousness, it’s also a word that gets thrown around a lot by travel writers.
Travellers want an authentic experience when they visit a destination. They want the food to be the authentic. The encounters they have with the people they meet need to be authentic and even the souvenirs have to be authentic, but what does that even mean?
If we look at the entry from Merriam-Webster’s own dictionary, authentic can take on a variety of meanings. The first states that something is authentic if it is ‘based on fact.’ By that definition, aren’t all travel experiences authentic? Whether you went to Disneyland or lived in the jungle with a local tribe, they all are based on fact, therefore they are all authentic.
What about the next definition? It states that something has to ‘conform to an original so as to reproduce essential features.’ It gives the example of an authentic reproduction. So if I’ve visited a place like Frankfurt’s Neue Altstadt, what I saw was authentic even though it’s a reproduction of a place that was completely destroyed during the Second World War.
The dictionary goes on to state that something is authentic if it was ‘made or done the same as the original,’ such as authentic Mexican fare. What if I go to Chef Edgar Núñez’s Sud 777 Restaurant in Mexico City and he invents a dish that is unlike anything I have ever tasted. He is Mexican and his fare is based on fact, but is it no longer authentic if it is unlike what has come before?
“We see in 2023 a kind of crisis of authenticity,” Merriam Webster’s editor at large Peter Sokolowski told The Associated Press ahead of their word-of-the-year announcement. “What we realize is that when we question authenticity, we value it even more.”
When it comes to travel writing, I think that authentic has become a cliché that writers use to convince their readers that a place is worth visiting. In my mind, all travel is authentic, no matter if you prefer to do it while backpacking or staying in all-inclusive resorts. As the dictionary states, something is authentic if it is ‘true to one’s own personality, spirit or character.’