How 'Feminism' Became Merriam-Webster’s 2017 Word Of The Year

Dec 12, 2017

“Feminism” is not a new word, but it is Merriam-Webster’s 2017 word of the year. The Springfield, Massachusetts-based dictionary said the word “feminism” was looked up on its website 70 percent more this year than last year.

The decision follows dictionary.com’s word of the year designation of “complicit,” which also made the Merriam-Webster short list. Other runners-up included recuse, federalism and hurricane.

Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster, said interest in “feminism” spiked several times this year, including during the Women’s March and the premiere of the movie “Wonder Woman.” He told NEPR about the definition of the word, and reasons why it's the word of the year.

Kari Njiiri, NEPR: First of all, let's define “feminism.”

Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster: The definition is: “the theory of the political economic and social equality of the sexes.” And there's a little subsense [of the word], which means: “organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests.”

And so how has this become the word of the year?

Well, our word of the year is a quantitative measure of interest in a particular word. What we're looking for, really, is a word that tells us something about this year that's different from last year.

Many of the words that are looked up every single day in the dictionary are words that are looked up every single year in the dictionary. We looked at words that were looked up in high volume with a great year-over-year difference from last year.

So [there was a] year-over-year increase of 70 percent in the case of “feminism,” which is a huge increase, because the word was already looked up in high volume last year. There’s a second part, which is several spikes in lookups that correspond to news events.

The Women's March in January showed a huge spike in the word “feminism.” Kellyanne Conway’s remarks saying that she didn't consider herself a feminist sent many people to the dictionary to look up the definition. We had a couple of entertainment stories -- the television series on Hulu based on Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid's Tale,” and the “Wonder Woman” film -- both of them showed spikes in “feminism.”

And finally, most recently, the many accusations of sexual harassment and assault [directed at] any number of men have made “feminism” a part of the national conversation in the last few months as well.

This wasn't just because of today's news, right? You had this word decided, what, a month ago?

No. We looked at the data in early December, as we always do. We want to look at as many data points as possible. A hundred million page views per month is a lot of words looked up in the dictionary. We do want to see what interests the public, what people are really thinking, according to what they're looking up in the dictionary.

We're not magicians. We're good at reading data -- we're not reading minds. But we can say that this is a word that's been on people's minds, and sort of in the air, in the ether, for this entire year. This is a word that is close to the top 20 of our all-time look ups. So this is a word that is clearly on people's minds in 2017.

You mentioned some other notable words that are included in the top 10 list, as it were: “complicit.”

“Complicit” is kind of a one-hit wonder, in the sense that it was associated with a single story, which is when Ivanka Trump said, “I don't know what ‘complicit’ means,” on television with Gayle King.

When a news maker or a prominent person says such a thing, it's an invitation to the dictionary. Essentially, the meaning of the word was put in question, and people looked it up, and then of course it was parodied on “Saturday Night Live.” So that combination of events sent people to the dictionary, for sure.

And I understand: “hurricane”?

Well, “hurricane” doesn't surprise me, because when a great weather event is in the news -- whether it's a cyclone, or a tornado or a hurricane -- we always see that word spike in look ups, including the word “blizzard.” So, hurricane: we had a sequence of them, and they affected the Caribbean and the southeast of the United States. It was in the news, and it's in the dictionary.

Peter Sokolowski is a substitute jazz host at New England Public Radio.

Heather Brandon contributed to this report, which includes information from The Associated Press.