Merriam-Webster’s Words of the Year 2018
Word of the Year:
Our Word of the Year for 2018 is justice. It was a top lookup throughout the year at Merriam-Webster.com, with the entry being consulted 74% more than in 2017.
The concept of justice was at the center of many of our national debates in the past year: racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, economic justice. In any conversation about these topics, the question of just what exactly we mean when we use the term justice is relevant, and part of the discussion.
This year’s news had many stories involving the division within the executive branch of government responsible for the enforcement of laws: the Department of Justice, sometimes referred to simply as “Justice.” Of course, the Mueller investigation itself is constantly in the news, and is being carried out through the Justice Department. Another big news story included yet another meaning of the word justice, as a synonym or title for “judge,” used frequently during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court.
Justice has varied meanings that do a lot of work in the language—meanings that range from the technical and legal to the lofty and philosophical. For many reasons and for many meanings, one thing’s for sure: justice has been on the minds of many people in 2018.
NationalismPhoto: Gage Skidmore / CC-BY-SA-2.0
Lookups for nationalism spiked 8,000% on October 22nd and 23rd after President Trump announced at a rally in Texas:
“You know, they have a word — it’s sort of became old-fashioned — it’s called a ‘nationalist.' And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist. Nothing wrong. Use that word. Use that word.”
Nationalism is defined as "loyalty and devotion to a nation," especially "exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups."
A nationalist is one who advocates for nationalism.
Nationalism is often distinguished from patriotism, which means “love or devotion to one’s own country,” but does not necessarily imply an attitude of superiority.
PansexualPhoto: Andy Witchger / CC-BY-2.0
Pansexual saw a spike in lookups in April, when singer Janelle Monáe was quoted in Rolling Stone magazine self-identifying with the term. Today the word most often is used to mean "of, relating to, or characterized by sexual desire or attraction that is not limited to people of a particular gender identity or sexual orientation," but the word entered the English language in the early 20th century with a different use: “tending to suffuse all experience and conduct with erotic feeling.”
The anonymous op-ed in The New York Times said to have been written by a senior official in the Trump administration caused lookups to spike for lodestar (and its less common variant loadstar) in early September. The term was used in this passage:
We may no longer have Senator McCain. But we will always have his example — a lodestar for restoring honor to public life and our national dialogue. Mr. Trump may fear such honorable men, but we should revere them.
— The New York Times, 6 Sept. 2018
Lodestar originally meant “a star that leads or guides (especially the North Star).” It now is used to mean “one that serves as an inspiration, model, or guide.” It’s not a commonly used word, and therefore some people tried to connect the anonymous author with people who had a history of using the word, notably Vice President Mike Pence, but the true author remains unknown.
EpiphanyPhoto: NINE STARS / CC-BY-3.0
There's nothing remarkable about the word epiphany experiencing a spike in lookups in early January: the earliest use of the word is to refer to a Christian festival held on January 6th in honor of the coming of the three kings to the infant Jesus Christ.
But lookups of epiphany spiked in August when the word featured in the trailer for a song in a forthcoming album from the K-Pop group BTS. In the song, the word functions in its metaphorical senses having to do with the sudden perception of the essential nature or meaning of something, or an illuminating realization. The word's Greek ancestor, epiphainein, means "to manifest."
Samantha Bee’s segment about the Trump administration’s immigration policy of separating children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border included her plea, directed at Ivanka Trump, to “do something about your dad’s immigration policies,” then using a disparaging and obscene word modified by feckless, meaning “ineffective” or “worthless.”
The feck in feckless is a Scottish word meaning "value” or “worth." And, interestingly enough, feckless does indeed have an antonym, although it is quite rare: feckful, meaning "efficient” or “effective."
It was the middle of May when one of the dictionary's wallflowers shot into the lookups ether: laurel was up more than 3300%, all because of an audio clip that had divided netizens into two distinct group, those who heard laurel and those who heard yanny. (The clip came from the audio pronunciation file at Vocabulary.com's entry for laurel.)
Linguists bounded in to explain the phenomenon—it has to do with whether lower or higher frequencies are more prominent, for an individual or because of audio quality—and the New York Times built a fun little tool that makes it possible for listeners to hear both.
PissantPhoto: Andrew Campbell / CC BY 2.0
The sometimes vulgar and generally obscure word pissant enjoyed a brief but intense period of lexicographical popularity early in the year, when it rose 115,000% in Merriam-Webster.com lookups. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady called a radio station out during an interview after a DJ on the station had several days earlier described Brady's young daughter with the word.
Pissant, which originally was a dialectal term for "ant," has been used as a generalized term of abuse for a person or thing deemed insignificant since the early 20th century. Its origin is exactly what one might expect, a blending of the urinary sense of piss and the formicine sense of ant.
RespectPhoto: Public Domain
When Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, died on August 16th, the title of one of her most enduring hits was ubiquitous in tributes to her, and respect became a top lookup.
The world had known Franklin's song for 50 years—in which time it has become an anthem for both the civil rights and feminist movements—but the word respect has been part of the English language since the 14th century. It comes from the Latin respectus, which literally means "the act of looking back." It's an apt etymology for a word that served as a focal point of a global appreciation for the decades of music Aretha Franklin had given the world.
MaverickPhoto: United States Congress / Public Domain
Maverick spiked following the death of Arizona Senator John McCain in August. Interest in the word came as no surprise, since McCain had often been described with this word, meaning "an independent individual who does not go along with a group or party."
Before maverick described independent people, it meant "an unbranded range animal; especially a motherless calf." The word comes from the name of Samuel A. Maverick, a 19th century lawyer and politician who, although not a cattle rancher, ended up with some cattle taken as payment for a debt. Since he neglected to brand any identifying marks on the cattle, many of the “independent” animals were taken by other ranchers who branded them as their own.
By the 1880s the word was already being used figuratively in conjunction with words such as political.
ExcelsiorPhoto: Edward Liu / CC BY-SA 2.0
Stan Lee’s motto and salutation excelsior spiked following his death in November. He used the word to conclude each of the monthly columns he wrote for Marvel Comics, and was so closely associated with it that he was even sometimes asked to say the word in public.
Excelsior is the Latin word for “higher” and is etymologically related to the words excel and excellent.
In addition to its Latin meaning, excelsior also has rare English meaning: “fine curled wood shavings used especially for packing fragile items.”