Merriam-Webster's 2017 Words of the Year

Our top lookups of 2017
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Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year for 2017 is feminism. The word was a top lookup throughout the year, with several spikes that corresponded to various news reports and events. The general rise in lookups tells us that many people are interested in this word; specific spikes give us insight into some of the reasons why.

Feminism spiked following news coverage of the Women's March on Washington, DC in January (and other related marches held around the country and internationally), and follow-up discussions regarding whether the march was feminist, and what kind of feminism was represented by organizers and attendees. The word spiked again when Kellyanne Conway said during an interview that she didn't consider herself a feminist. In this case, the definition of feminism was itself the subject of the news story—an invitation for many people to look up the word.

Interest in the dictionary definition of feminism was also driven by entertainment this year: we saw increased lookups after the release of both Hulu’s series The Handmaid's Tale and the film Wonder Woman.

More recently, lookups of feminism have been increasing in conjunction with the many accounts of sexual assault and harassment in the news. Many women have come forward to share their stories with journalists and many more women joined in on social media using the #MeToo hashtag to say that they too have been affected by such behavior. The string of breaking news stories regarding the resignations, firings, or dismissals of men who have been charged with sexual harassment or assault has kept this story in the news.

Today’s definitions of feminism read: “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests.”

Photo: Michael Vacon, CC-BY-SA 4.0

Complicit was also a top lookup throughout the year, driven primarily by politics—and SNL.

Complicit means “helping to commit a crime or do wrong in some way.” It comes from the Latin word meaning “to fold together.”

The word has been used in connection with the Trump administration throughout the year: first, regarding whether members of Trump's administration were complicit in the firing of James Comey, and later whether they were complicit in Russian disinformation campaigns meant to disrupt the 2016 election. Other politicians have used the word in an effort to distance themselves from the Trump administration.

But our biggest spikes for the word were tied to President Trump's daughter, Ivanka. The word spiked in March when Saturday Night Live aired a parody commercial for a fragrance named "Complicit," describing it as "The fragrance for the woman who could stop all this … but won't." The word spiked again weeks later when Trump herself said, in response to Gayle King's question about whether she and her husband were “complicit” in what was going on in the White House, that she "didn't know what it means to be ‘complicit.’"

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Lookups of recuse spiked several times this year, and all the spikes were in reference to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

In January, Sessions said he would recuse himself from any investigations the Department of Justice might undertake regarding Hillary Clinton, as he had made politically charged comments about her during her presidential campaign that led many to question his ability to be impartial. Later this year, however, Republicans called on Sessions to investigate Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation's purported ties to what has been called the "Uranium One" deal with a Russian state-owned firm. Lookups spiked again as people remembered that Sessions had recused himself—then claimed that this investigation didn't count.

Lookups spiked again in March when yet other Congress members called on Sessions to recuse himself from any DOJ investigations of collusion between Russia and any members of the Trump cabinet or administration, because Sessions did not disclose that he had been in conversation with the Russian ambassador in 2016.

Recuse means “to disqualify (oneself) as judge in a particular case” and “to remove (oneself) from participation to avoid a conflict of interest.” Recuse came to English from French and ultimately traces back to the Latin word recusare (meaning “to object to” or “to refuse”).

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While it didn't appear at the center of any major events this year, empathy was nonetheless one of our top lookups throughout the year. It was frequently used in articles criticizing Trump or Republicans for their lack of empathy in their comments or proposed legislation, and it was also discussed as one of the primary desired outcomes of the #MeToo campaign.

The largest event that drove it into the news happened in January, when Asghar Farhadi, Iranian director of the Academy Awards' Best Foreign Language Film The Salesman, refused to travel to the U.S. in protest of the Trump travel ban. His statement ended with a powerful call to empathy "between us and others, an empathy that we need today."

Empathy means “the ability to share another person’s feelings” and ultimately derives from the Greek word meaning “emotional.”


An old-fashioned word was made new again in September when the Korean Central News Agency released comments from North Korean president Kim Jong Un that called Donald Trump "a mentally deranged U.S. dotard." Dotard (pronounced /DOH-terd/) saw a 35,000% increase in lookups from last year, though it was not the most looked up word of 2017.

Dotard means "a person in his or her dotage" (dotage is "a state or period of senile decay marked by decline of mental poise and alertness"), and initially had the meaning "imbecile" when it began being used in the 14th century.

The word has an old-fashioned ring to it, and some journalists posited that the odd word choice could be attributed to out-of-date English-Korean dictionaries used in translating Un's comments.

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Syzygy, pronounced /SIZ-uh-jee/, spiked on August 21, 2017, the day of the solar eclipse, whose path of totality (or total darkness) passed through North America. We define syzygy as "the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies (such as the sun, moon, and earth during a solar or lunar eclipse) in a gravitational system." The word comes from the Greek syzygos, meaning "yoked together," and has been used to refer to celestial matters since the 17th century.

Syzygy also saw a small spike at the beginning of December because of the supermoon, which owed some of its large appearance to syzygy.


Words looked up in the dictionary aren’t always political, and gyro proves it. The word spiked in March when a widely shared sketch from The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and country singer Luke Bryan began with them ordering from a New York City food truck and ended with a music video for a song called “I Don’t Know How to Pronounce Gyro.”

So, how do you pronounce gyro? It depends on which gyro you're referring to. The earlier gyro is a shortening of words like gyroscope and gyrocompass and its pronunciation is based on the pronunciation of both those words, meaning it's pronounced /JEYE-roh/. This use began in the very early 1900s.

Then, around 1970, the word gyro was taken into English from Greek cuisine. The turning spits of meat that provide the main ingredient of gyros, like the gyrocompasses and gyroscopes before, were named after the Greek verb gyros (“turn”), but this more recent borrowing followed Greek-influenced phonetic rules rather than English ones to give us /YEE-roh/ and /ZHIHR-oh/ as common pronunciations. The definition for this kind of gyro is “a sandwich especially of lamb and beef, tomato, onion, and yogurt sauce on pita bread.”

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Words about political and economic systems have been in our top lookups for many years, and this year is no exception. Federalism spiked in September as Congressional squabbling over the fate of the Affordable Care Act took center stage.

Lindsay Graham, one of the senatorial co-sponsors of a bill which would have turned control of the federal healthcare marketplace over to individual states, was the source of the lookup this year. While the merits of the Graham-Cassidy bill were debated in Congress and the public square, Graham commented that passage of the bill would stop what he viewed as the inevitable adoption of a single-payer healthcare system in America:

Here's the choice for America: socialism or federalism when it comes to your health care.

The word saw an increase of almost 500% over the lookups that it had in 2016. We define federalism as “the distribution of power in an organization (such as a government) between a central authority and the constituent units.” One confusing point about the word is that, while we call our national government the “federal government,” the word federalism often refers to states’ rights.

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Large meteorological events often drive lookups, and this year provided several big events to track: Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria, all of which caused widespread damage to the southeastern U.S. and the Caribbean. Hurricane was a top lookup throughout the early part of September, as these storms battered the islands and coasts.

Lookups of hurricane often spike during and after hurricanes, though we don't think this is due to ignorance of what a hurricane is. Rather, we think people are looking up hurricane to get more detailed information. For those who are interested in a technical meaning of hurricane, we define it as "a tropical cyclone with winds of 74 miles (119 kilometers) per hour or greater that occurs especially in the western Atlantic, that is usually accompanied by rain, thunder, and lightning, and that sometimes moves into temperate latitudes."

The word came into English in the middle of the 16th century, from the Spanish huracán, which itself came from the aboriginal language Taino's hurakán.


Gaffe spiked in lookups this year starting in February, following a surprising and awkward moment at the climax of the 2017 Academy Awards. The nominees were listed, and then the award for Best Picture was announced for the film "La La Land." Then, two minutes later, as the stars of "La La Land" were celebrating onstage mid-speech, things were abruptly stopped, and it became clear that the presenters had been given the wrong envelope. The real winner, "Moonlight," was announced to a completely baffled audience.

Gaffe is defined as "a noticeable mistake," and while the word is often applied to errors in social settings, it can refer to any mistake. Given the magnitude and the large audience of this particular mistake, it's not surprising that "the envelope gaffe" was analyzed and reanalyzed in the months following the Oscars.