Springfield-based dictionary giant Merriam Webster has been all about words since way back in the 19th century. But as editor at large Peter Sokowski explained, since the turn of the 21st century they’ve also become a data company of sorts.
"To get to the word of the year, we want to know what word was looked up this year that was not looked up last year," Sokowski said. "So we do a kind of year over year analysis."
For more than a decade now, the dictionary maker has been naming a word of the year and compiling a list of other words that notably caught the public's imagination. And their list for 2018 reveals a word-curious public at the intersection of politics and popular culture.
It was the passing of three luminaries that led to 30 percent of the words in their top 10 this year. The word "respect" spiked following the death of Aretha Franklin; the word "maverick" when John McCain lost his battle with cancer. And then there was “excelsior.”
"Which is the Latin term that means 'higher,'" explained Sokolowski. "It’s the same root as the word excellent or excel. And that was the motto and sort of the sign-off of Stan Lee from Marvel Comics, who died this year."
The word "pansexual" spiked in April, when singer Janelle Monae described herself as such in an interview. And of course, pop culture in 2018 means viral phenomena, and the great "Do you hear 'laurel' or 'yanny?'" debate vaulted the word "laurel" into the top 10.
Of course, the world of politics did its part too.
A highbrow/lowbrow turn of phrase in reference to Ivanka Trump by talk show host Samantha Bee vaulted the vocabulary word "feckless" into the top 10. That anonymous New York Times op-ed in September from a senior Trump administration official turned the word “lodestar” into a buzzword. At a rally in October, President Trump embraced the term "nationalist," which Sokolowski said immediately spiked and stayed high the rest of the year.
"You can contrast [nationalism] with patriotism," said Sokowski. "Patriotism is a kind of love of one's own country, and nationalism is when you sort of put your country ahead of others."
But Merriam Webster's top word of the year was one as common as it is esoteric. A big idea in a small, two-syllable package: "justice."
"This kind of came as a surprise to me," said Sokolowski. "We look at the data on a kind of daily micro level. And it wasn’t until we stood back and saw the macro level of what the year revealed that we saw that this was really the word that stood out."
Sokolowski says there was no single event that drove lookups for the word justice, but rather a steady stream of stories that kept it hovering at higher than usual levels the whole year.
"Stories that were about racial justice and social justice, economic justice," he explained.
Then there was the U.S. Justice Department, which stayed front and center in the news throughout the year.
"There was one notable spike for 'obstruction of justice' in early August when President Trump tweeted that he wanted the attorney general to end the investigation led by Robert Muller," said Sokolowski.
And one of the biggest political dramas of the year centered around the word as well.
"The word 'justice' has several meanings. One of them is 'judge,'" said Sokolowski. "So those September hearings for the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh also contributed to this."
The word "justice" is of French origin, brought to England during the Norman conquest. All kinds of French words were adopted into the English language then, many of which already had English synonyms. It’s why we have autumn and fall; maternal and motherly; royal and kingly.
"But there was no word for justice," said Sokolowski. "We had the old English word law, and the old English word fair, and the old English word right. But we didn’t have a word for a system — a kind of bureaucracy — of fairness."
That French system of justice would help form the basis of English common law, which in turn provided the building blocks for the American experiment. The word "justice" appears multiple times in the Declaration of Independence. Our pledge of allegiance describes our republic as a nation where there is “justice for all.” And in 2018, it seems, the word "justice" continued to capture the imagination of the American citizenry.