Merriam-Webster’s 2018 Words of the Year

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Toward the end of every calendar year, Merriam-Webster, like other major dictionaries, shares a list of the words most frequently searched for on its website. As usual, this search traffic is largely driven by public discourse, as people look up words they see and hear in the media and in conversations, seeking to learn definitions of unfamiliar words or to clarify for themselves the meanings of words they know (or think they know). This post discusses Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2018 and ten runners-up.

The Word of the Year, justice, was newsworthy in several contexts. The primary sense is that of administration or maintenance of fairness and lawfulness, and increasing concern about social justice has brought the concept, and the term that represents it, to the forefront in our society. But justice is a job title as well as a concept, referring to a judge on a national or state supreme court or similar body, and the controversy over confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as an associate justice of the US Supreme Court also led people to check the definition. (The senior member of a supreme court is often titled “chief justice,” while the others are designated “associate justices.”) Finally, on a more trivial note, the Justice League is a team of superheroes created for DC Comics and appearing in various media, including a film released late last year.

The runners-up include nationalism, which has figured prominently in the media as the concept gains traction throughout the world, including in the United States, where President Donald Trump recently unabashedly identified himself as a nationalist. However, he, like many people, appears to be unclear on the concept: Nationalism is often conflated with patriotism. However, while the latter term refers to pride in one’s country, nationalism denotes loyalty to a nation at the expense of international (and intranational) harmony. Nationalism is closely associated with fascism, a political philosophy that incorporates dictatorial control and centralization of authority and brutal suppression of individuals and groups deemed undesirable or resistant to fascists’ goals. In summary, to be called a nationalist is decidedly not a compliment, and to call oneself a nationalist does not invite compliments.

Pansexual, incorporating a Greek prefix meaning “all,” refers to a conception of gender identity and sexual orientation as something that occurs along a spectrum, rejecting the idea of binary categorization.

Lodestar, originally denoting Polaris, the North Pole Star, which for millennia has served as a navigational aid, now refers more broadly to a guide, inspiration, or model. (Lode is a Middle English word meaning “course” or “way; it’s seen also in the context of mining: A lode is a deposit of ore.) The term had a vogue this year after it was used in an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times purportedly written by a senior Trump administration official. Because Vice President Mike Pence is known to use the fairly obscure term, some people suspected him of being the author.

An epiphany is an appearance or manifestation, but the term is most commonly employed to refer to a realization or revelation. Its popularity as a search term early this year likely resulted from the Christian holiday by that name, which on January 6 commemorates the visit of the Magi, or Three Wise Men, to where the infant Jesus lay; it derives from the Greek verb epiphainein, meaning “manifest.”

Feckless, used by a television commentator to criticize Ivanka Trump for, in her role as adviser to her father, failing to criticize the Trump administration’s immigration policies, employs the root feck, of Scottish origin, meaning “value” or “worth.” Essentially, it is a rare synonym for worthless.

Laurel, the word for a tree whose foliage was used to crown victors in athletic events in ancient Greece, became a hot search term when a debate erupted online about which of two words was being enunciated in an online dictionary’s pronunciation sound file. By extension of its original definition, the term came to apply to the celebratory object itself and to figurative honors; one idiom based on the term is “rest on (one’s) laurels,” which alludes to someone who, upon achieving an honor, refrains from attempting feats that bring further recognition. (Usage generally pertains to one who does not rest on one’s laurels, meaning that person does seek other honors.)

Pissant was frequently looked up after a radio personality described a famous football player’s daughter with the word, which is a derogatory dialectal term formed from piss and ant. (This word is not to be confused with puissant, a rare term meaning “powerful” and etymologically related to power and potent. All three words derive from the Latin term posse, meaning “able,” which survives in English as the term for a group deputized to pursue a fugitive or, more loosely, to denote one’s entourage.)

The death this year of Aretha Franklin, best known for her rousing rendition of the song “Respect,” prompted look-ups of that word, which literally means “look back.” (The second syllable of that word, meaning “look,” is also the root of spectacle, spectator, inspect, suspect, and so on.)

Maverick is a term often applied to the late John McCain, a US senator and presidential aspirant, for his frequent opposition to party-line politics. The word, describing someone who often acts without regard for group or party loyalty, derives from the surname of a gentleman who, after taking a small herd of cattle as payment for a debt, neglected to brand them, rendering them vulnerable to appropriation by other ranchers, who rounded them up on the open range and applied their own brands to the livestock. Since then, the word has been a synonym for independent, though “stolen from a careless owner” would be a more appropriate association.

The death of Marvel Comics mogul Stan Lee this year resulted in references to excelsior, the word with which Lee typically signed off in the columns he wrote for his company’s comic books. Though the primary meaning of the word is mundane—it was a trademark for a brand of wood shavings used as protective packing material and later a generic term—its origin is the Latin word meaning “higher”; excel, excellent, and so on are related.

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