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2018 Word of the Year : Behind the Scenes

Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year is determined by our online dictionary look-up data. The word must show both high volume of traffic and show significant year-over-year increase in look-ups at Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2018 is justice. It was a top look-up through out the year, 74% more than in 2017. We see spikes in our data that correspond to certain news events and stories reported in the media that help us to understand what drove many people to look up justice so much more frequently this year. The word and the concept of justice has been at the center of so many of our national debates in the past year. Racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, economic justice. Any conversation about these topics can naturally lead to seeking a clearer idea of what we mean when we speak of justice. This year’s news had many, many stories involving the branch of government responsible for the enforcement of laws, the Department of Justice. It’s sometimes just referred to as “Justice,” including in President Trump’s tweets. News stories drive look-ups as when the Justice Department reversed its policy of lenient enforcement of marijuana laws, announced its support for a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, proposed a ban on bump stocks, and began an investigation of Tesla. Of course, the investigation led by Robert Mueller is constantly in the news and is being carried out through the Justice Department. The term obstruction of justice spiked on August first, the day that President Trump tweeted his wish for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to stop the Mueller investigation. In late September, justice as a synonym or title for a judge spiked during the Kavanaugh supreme court hearings. Justice might seem like a very common word, but it’s often familiar words for abstract concepts that are among the most looked up words in the dictionary. When common words are used in contexts that are very specific, technical or legal, we turn to the dictionary for the detail and nuance that a definition can have. Our definition is, the maintenance or administration of what is reasonable, correct, lawful or deserved especially by the impartial resolution of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments. Other words that were looked up frequently this year make up our top 10. Lodestar was used in the anonymous New York Times Op-Ed by an insider from the Trump administration. Nationalism has been looked up more frequently in general and also had a big spike when President Trump declared himself a nationalist. Feckless was looked up in large numbers after Samantha Bee was criticized for using it to modify an obscene word on her show. Laurel spiked for linguistic reasons. People online were split over who heard laurel and who heard yanny in an audio pronunciation that revealed differences of hearing perception. Pansexual spiked when Janelle Monae declared that she was one. Epiphany spiked from a video by the K-pop group BTS in August. Pissant, meaning insignificant person, was used by a Boston sports radio host to refer to Tom Brady’s young daughter. And Brady politely but firmly objected to the word. Finally, three words were looked up following the deaths of prominent Americans, maverick for John McCain, excelsior for Stan Lee, and respect for Aretha Franklin. Looking at the year through the prism of vocabulary by analyzing our look-up data, reminds us that words matter. Justice is a word at the heart of many issues in our society. Through the dictionary, we can make these connections with words that tell us something about our culture, our language and ourselves.

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