Merriam-Webster’s 2015 Word of the Year Isn’t Even a Word

By Mark Nichol

The selection of -ism as Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year should be invalidated on a technicality—the dictionary publisher might choose, instead, to refer to the Morpheme of the Year—but the choice is an apt one, as multiple concepts whose names include that suffix have dominated recent public discourse.

Merriam-Webster selects the Word of the Year and its competitors on the basis of the number of times visitors to its website search for a particular word and according to how strikingly that figure compares to the number of lookups from the previous year. Based on the results for 2015, the American public, apparently, is preoccupied with isms.

Topmost among -ism words in the public consciousness, perhaps, is terrorism, a term referring to acts of violence perpetrated to intimidate people for political ends. Though terrorism has seemed to gain ubiquity only in the last couple of decades—in the United States, the terrorist attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center and on the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, prompted the nation’s preoccupation with the concept—the word was first used in the late eighteenth century, and of course the strategy is as old as political organization.

A tangentially related concept, racism—referring to bigotry on the basis of ethnic origin—was also a popular search item at Merriam-Webster.com last year. (The intersection occurs because radical Muslims have been responsible for some notable recent atrocities in the United States and abroad, and many people conflate followers of Islam with a specific ethnic identity. However, though Islam began in Arabia and many early followers of the religion were Arabs, like Christianity, it is a worldwide phenomenon whose practitioners come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.)

The term is also in the news because many people view some of 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump’s views and proposed policies as racist. In addition, because of a rash of incidents across the United States in which white police officers have appeared to use excessive force against black crime suspects, many observers say that racism remains one of the most significant problems in American society.

Another ism that Merriam-Webster highlighted is socialism. The term, referring to a political system in which the government controls the means of production and distribution of goods, is newsworthy for two reasons: Since early in the first of President Obama’s two terms, he has championed what are widely perceived as socialistic policies such as nationalized health care, and 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, has received much publicity for discussing policies and programs associated with socialism.

That term, thanks to political upheavals and international conflicts throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is fraught with negative connotation, so it’s no surprise that people have sought to investigate its meaning. (I’ll write about socialism and the related term communism in an upcoming post.)

In my first paragraph, I suggested that -ism is ineligible for Word of the Year recognition because it’s not a word; it’s a morpheme, a unit of meaning (usually a prefix or a suffix) that is not an independent component of language. But later in the post, I twice wrote ism (once in plural form, and then in singular construction) as if it’s a word. Why? Because it is a word, used to refer collectively to a nebulous set of social concepts.

But -ism, by virtue of that hyphen, is a mere morpheme with a different meaning: Unlike ism, it does not stand on its own to refer to a category of concepts; it is a suffix subordinate to the many nouns it serves, altering the noun’s meaning to denote a system of thought related to that noun.

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