The word of the year is ‘feminism’

As a Merriam-Webster editor-at-large puts it, "We got a vocabulary lesson in 2017."

#MeToo Women's March In Hollywood, California on November 12, 2017. CREDIT: Faye Sadou/MediaPunch/IPX
#MeToo Women's March In Hollywood, California on November 12, 2017. CREDIT: Faye Sadou/MediaPunch/IPX

Merriam-Webster, social media darling of these Twilight Zone-y times, has announced 2017’s word of the year: feminism.

The data-determined pick — based on both volume of lookups and significant year-over-year increase — is a glimpse at our society’s shared search history for the past 12 months. What was in the news, what sparked our wonder, what made us feel defensive or confused, skeptical or certain, and also what we weren’t 100 percent sure how to spell: The word of the year is one small encapsulation of all of the above, a little sneak peek into our collective curiosity.

ThinkProgress spoke with Merriam-Webster editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski earlier this year, when the dictionary’s Twitter feed was alternately charming and enraging the internet for “trolling” Trump (which is to say, by posting timely, accurate definitions of words Trump used incorrectly). On Tuesday morning, we called up Sokolowski again to talk about feminism, our nation’s yearlong vocabulary lesson, and what it really means when you look a word up in the dictionary. (Note: It doesn’t necessarily mean…that you don’t know what it means.)

The word of the year is “feminism.” Were you surprised? Did you have any predictions?

I was surprised about one thing regarding feminism itself. Feminism was already a very popular word. It was in our top 10 list for the last two years. These -isms are words that are a little bit abstract, like fascism, capitalism, socialism — those words are looked up every single day. Abstract words are looked up a lot in the dictionary on a daily basis, regardless of the news.

Feminism has been rising slowly over the last few years. After this year, it will have entered what we call perennial or evergreen status: It’s in our top 20 or 30 lookups in the history of our website! It rose 70 percent year over year from last year, when it was already in the top ten. That shows a striking amount of interest.

Talk a bit about the moments this year when lookups for “feminism” really spiked.

The Women’s March in January, followed by Kellyanne Conway’s appearance at CPAC in February — and the interesting thing about her story is that the word itself was the subject of the story. It wasn’t some kind of policy question. She was a prominent person in he news, but the question was about the definition. She said, “I don’t consider myself a feminist,” and that sent many people to the dictionary. Sometimes a newsmaker will use language in such a way as to put the meaning of a word into question.

So someone using a word incorrectly — or just questionably — is, in its way, helpful to a public understanding of a word, in that it sends people to the dictionary to fact-check it?

Yes, absolutely. And it happened several times. The word “betrayal,” which Sean Spicer used regarding Sally Yates, and reporters called him on it immediately. “Is that treason?” And he said, “I’m not going to define the word.” So people immediately looked it up. That’s also true for the word “fact,” the same thing with Kellyanne Conway and “alternative fact,” which sent people to the dictionary. And “complicit,” when Ivanka said, “I don’t know what it means to be complicit.”  So the word itself was the subject.

When the meaning of the word is the question, it’s gratifying as a dictionary person to see people turn to the dictionary. You might say, to a certain extent, we got a vocabulary lesson in 2017.

“We’re measuring curiosity, that’s all we’re doing. We’re not judging the user; we judge the words.”

[The other lookup spikes for “feminism” came] from all of the reviews and thinkpieces about The Handmaid’s Tale… [because of] the moment in which it’s broadcast, and the author is alive and well and is speaking in a very immediate way about her work. And a happier story: Wonder Woman! A film that people liked, directed by a woman, with a new star. Lots of interest there. And finally, of course, it goes without saying, the Weinstein scandal and all of the others that come from it that have kept the word in the news and elevated in a way that is remarkable. It started at a very high point on our list and went even higher.

It feels a little depressing to me that people are still looking up — and mangling — the definition of feminism. I thought we’d really covered that by now. 

I know. But here’s the thing I always say: We’re good at reading data, not minds. So we never know from what perspective or why people are looking words up. And again: This is an -ism. It’s a political idea, an abstract definition. The basic idea of equality, that is the most important word in that definition. I think when people are looking up words, they may well be confirming for themselves. And with abstract words like feminism, socialism, even words like terrorism — for example, it spiked this year after the Las Vegas shooting, because people said, “let’s call this guy a terrorist,” and Masha Gessen said, “don’t do that, there’s not political motive.” This abstract noun meets the concrete crime, and how do they relate?

So feminism is the news story of the day, whether that’s the Women’s March or Kellyanne, whatever it is, and it encounters the abstract idea. It struck me as quite natural for very smart people to look up words like this, to confirm their understanding of this abstract idea.

GLORIA STEINEM, CENTER RIGHT, GREETS PROTESTERS AT THE BARRICADES BEFORE SPEAKING AT THE WOMEN’S MARCH ON WASHINGTON DURING THE FIRST FULL DAY OF DONALD TRUMP’S PRESIDENCY, SATURDAY, JAN. 21, 2017 IN WASHINGTON. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN MINCHILLO
GLORIA STEINEM, CENTER RIGHT, GREETS PROTESTERS AT THE BARRICADES BEFORE SPEAKING AT THE WOMEN’S MARCH ON WASHINGTON DURING THE FIRST FULL DAY OF DONALD TRUMP’S PRESIDENCY, SATURDAY, JAN. 21, 2017 IN WASHINGTON. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN MINCHILLO

And if we step back further, the words people look up regularly that aren’t newsy are abstract: “integrity,” “paradigm.” Slightly abstract words that are looked up regardless of the news. A word like “integrity,” people are curious about that word. It doesn’t mean we lack integrity because we look it up. I think curiosity is the opposite of ignorance. It means you have an acute interest in that word and that idea, in exhibiting that quality.

Revisiting the definition of feminism today, is there anything about it that stands out to you now that you didn’t notice or appreciate before? 

The Merriam-Webster definition of "feminism."
The Merriam-Webster definition of "feminism."

The most important word in this definition is the word “equality.” I think it’s a good definition because of that. It’s a very short definition, but it says a lot.

I think we have to step back and recognize, when we see this word “equality,” equality could come in different ways. This sense of this word — feminism — came into currency because of the suffragette movement for women’s right to vote. And that is a kind of equality, but now with regard to workplace sexual harassment, we’re talking about another kind of equality, one that goes beyond a strictly legal definition but incorporates these social ideas that have kept women out of positions of power and have kept them silent. The idea that right at this moment we’re seeing those stories exposed and opened up makes it an exciting time to revisit this definition that is 100 years old.

What’s that history of the political use of the word?

Our first use of this word in a political sense is from 1895. It’s just over 100 years old, which is a new word for an ancient idea: the equality of the sexes. But because of the political reality, it wasn’t expressed in language until 1895 and then finally in legislation until 1920, which seems quite recent. I see a word that’s got this modern use that has evolved over time but the definition has not really changed in that regard.

“The most important word in this definition is the word ‘equality.’ I think it’s a good definition because of that. It’s a very short definition but it says a lot.”

I have to tell you, the first definition of the word feminism was written by Noah Webster himself in 1841, but he did not mean it in this way. His definition was “the qualities of females.” He meant “femininity.” He meant something else. And then of course the word had a medical definition which was used in the later 19th century but before the political one, “the presence of female secondary sex characteristics in a male.” If you look in the Oxford English Dictionary, that dates to the 1860s and 1870s. It wasn’t until later that its third definition became, without question, its most frequent use.

Hearing you recite the definition of feminism now reminds me, not long ago, that definition was basically the hook of a Beyoncé song when she sampled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted talk. 

Yeah! This word has been rising, I would say, for three years. This is a word that has been in the air and in the ether, and it was associated with Hillary’s campaign — it would have been high this year whether or not she won, although it would have had different associations.

I know you said you didn’t have any predictions for what the word would be this year, but I was expecting to see “misconduct” on the list.

There’s always dogs that don’t bark, and that’s a very good example of one. There were other remarkable uses of language that don’t make a dent on our data. It just shows that the meaning or spelling of that word were not put into any kind of question. In the case of “misconduct,” it is a straightforward word.

And watching our data is ceaselessly fascinating because we never know what word will be the keyword of that story. Our data doesn’t show the most important fact of that day’s news. The more legalistic term, like “collusion,” which sounds more technical, and “indict,” which has a further problem which is its spelling — those are the words we see.

The data sometimes has a mind of its own. The individual curiosity of you and me — as I told you back in May, looking up a word in the dictionary is an intimate, private act. But when it becomes a collective act, it becomes something we can measure as public curiosity.

Gal Godot as Wonder Woman. CREDIT: Warner Bros.
Gal Godot as Wonder Woman. CREDIT: Warner Bros.

When we talked this spring, Merriam-Webster was just beginning to get recognition online for your social media savvy. How’s a year of going viral been treating you? Have you seen interest in the dictionary grow since then?

It has grown. Our Twitter following grew by 1,000 overnight [last night]! What’s gratifying is that, I’ve been watching lookup trends since 2002. And I’ve always found it interesting as a language professional, a working lexicographer. It helps us understand how people use our product. But when we turned it around and made it public, we realized there’s a lot of word lovers out there. Looking at the news through the prism of vocabulary is a very focused way of looking at the news.

“We have this measure that is purely objective, for all different people, all different parties and perspectives, and their curiosity becomes a collective measure of how we describe our world.”

Good journalists are usually language lovers also, so it’s become a new perspective that is, in a very significant way, objective. We’re measuring curiosity, that’s all we’re doing. We’re not judging the user; we judge the words. So what’s great about this is, in this era of so-called fake news or false victimhoods, we have this measure that is purely objective, for all different people, all different parties and perspectives, and their curiosity becomes a collective measure of how we describe our world. Maybe we’re one of the last reliable objective sources. You go to the dictionary — it’s a cliché to begin the term paper or article with the definition of a word — but that cliché speaks to a truth: You start with the dictionary because it’s a point of departure that we all trust.

“Surreal” was the word of the year in 2016. You’ve said that word, surreal, always gets looked up a lot after a tragedy. So was 2016 just a slow-burning tragedy? 

We learned about “surreal” after 9/11, [after which] it became the biggest word. And we saw it after Newtown, after the Boston Marathon, after Robin Williams’ suicide. It was the word we closely associated with shocking, tragic news. And it’s true it was the most looked-up word in November 2016. It’s not for me to judge the tragedy of that day necessarily, but it’s a word we associate with tragic events.

2016 was a year full of surprises, and that’s what it does reflect, absolutely… The word before that was “ism,” which included fascism, terrorism, racism, socialism, and feminism, and capitalism — all those words were in the top 20 in 2015. Eight of the top 20 words were -isms.

Do you think that Trump’s recklessness with language, both in his verbal and tweeted communication, has inspired some backlash that feeds into this interest in the dictionary? It’s like everyone decided to become America’s public editor. 

The answer is, words matter. Words do matter, and we are paying attention. And the words that our leaders use have consequences and have impact. I think it’s foolish to ever think otherwise. Think of the great rhetoric of Lincoln, Churchill, JFK. We remember those words, word for word. The actions of a leader are so important and their words are so important.

Speaking of iconic lines that most of us remember word-for-word: Didn’t Trump just mangle the iconic Pearl Harbor day line?

I can tell you the word “infamy” spikes every December 7. And speaking of rhetoric, FDR is a great example. That’s one of the most consequential words in American history. it propelled us right to war.

Aside from “feminism,” what other words stood out this year?

If we were to say this year gave us a vocabulary lesson, part of it did come from politics: So “carnage” in January. “Svengali,” which was used regarding Steve Bannon. And then we saw “complicit” obviously was a vocabulary lesson all by itself. And then we saw “recuse” was another one — that was in our top ten. What I like is the word j’accuse —  that moment during the James Comey testimony — and the word “kakistrocracy,” a government by the worst. And on a happier note, “syzygy,” because of the solar eclipse. Talk about a national science lesson that was also a vocabulary lesson! And “dotard,” you can’t really do better than that: a word that has been in the English language for a long time but has fallen out of use. Those are the ways we got a public vocabulary lesson through the news.

It’s useful to be reminded that to look up a word doesn’t mean you don’t know what it means. 

I’ve been leading the one-man crusade to inform people about that for a long time. People make those assumptions very quickly. The fact that “feminism” has been looked up a lot simply means that the idea is in the air, it doesn’t mean that people are ignorant. And we know that people of all political stripes use our dictionary.