Merriam-Webster’s 2017 Words of the Year

By Mark Nichol

Toward the end of each calendar year, around the winter holidays, various dictionaries trot out their annual Words of the Year feature. This year, as can be expected, the focus (according to Merriam-Webster) was predominantly on terms directly or indirectly associated with politics.

Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year, prompted by various events and incidents regarding gender equality and women’s right, is feminism. The term has various connotations, depending on one’s perspective about the concept, but the objective meanings, according to the company’s website, are “the theory of . . . equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.”

More unusual words that appeared in Merriam-Webster’s top ten include dotard, which refers to one in a state or period of dotage, or senility; the root word is dote, the verb form. (However, dote is more commonly employed for the sense of “give generous attention or affection.”) Like dotty (meaning “crazy or eccentric,” or “obsessed” or “ridiculous”), dote stems from a Germanic word meaning “foolish.”

Another term prominent in online-dictionary surges earlier this year is the spelling bee participant’s bane, syzygy, which simply refers to a generally straight-line configuration of bodies in a solar system or other gravitational system, such as occurs during an eclipse. The word, by way of Latin, is from a Greek term meaning “yoked together.”

Greek is also the source of gyro, which made the list in the sense of a type of sandwich of Greek provenance, rather than a spinning device such as a gyrocompass. Both senses relate to turning; the sandwich is so named because the meat filling is traditionally turned on a spit over flame to cook it.

Then there’s gaffe (meaning “blunder or mistake”), sometimes erroneously spelled gaff, the word from which it is derived. A gaff is any one of several types of hooks or hooked implements, and as a verb it applies to using or applying a hook. As a slang term, it means “music hall or theater”—my guess is that it’s derived from the notion of the proverbial hook used to yank poorly received vaudeville performers off the stage—and it also informally pertains to abuse or an ordeal, or a trick or hoax. (It also serves as a verb associated with these senses.)


1 Response to “Merriam-Webster’s 2017 Words of the Year”

  • D.A.W.

    The word “syzygy” in astronomy refers to many other unusual configurations in the astronomy of the Solar System, including three objects forming right triangles** and three objects forming equilateral triangles.
    The special form of syzygy involving three or more celestial bodies in a straight line is called a “conjunction”. There are “inferior conjunctions” and “superior conjunctions” of planets depending on whether the sun is in the middle or not. Let PX = Planet X and PY = Planet Y. Then we could have the (approximate) straight line of Sun–PX–PY, or we could have PX–Sun–PY.
    Likewise, we can have the same involving moons.
    Jupiter has four large moons, Io, Europa (Eu), Ganymede (Ga), and Calisto (Ca). One conjunction that never occurs has all four on the same side of Jupiter:
    Jupiter–Io–Eu–Ga-Ca .
    In the film “2001: A Space Odyssey”, this kind of “super syzygy” does occur once, anyway, and it is at a time of “earthshaking” significance for Mankind.
    It is when the spaceship Discovery One and the astronaut David Bowman arrive at Jupiter, and he discovers that a gigantic copy of the monolith “TMA-1” has appeared in orbit around Jupiter.
    **The very opposite of a straight-line configuration is a right triangle.

Leave a comment: