Donald Trump at a campaign rally.

Credit: Gage Skidmore

'Complicit' And 'Fact' Among The Most Searched Words During Trump's First 100 Days

April 19, 2017

The "First 100 Days." It's an arbitrary measuring stick, but one that American presidents have been measured by since way back in the 1930s when FDR coined the phrase. For the record, Roosevelt was referring to the Congress' first 100 days. But, nevertheless, the phrase was applied to him and every chief executive since.

There are many ways to measure the impact of a President's first 100 days, from policy accomplishments to opinion polls. But as Donald Trump approaches his 100th day in office on April 29, I was curious to know whether he has impacted the words people have been looking up in the dictionary.

That's exactly the kind of thing Peter Sokolowski tracks for Springfield-based Merriam-Webster as its editor-at-large, where he combs through some 100-million monthly page views on Merriam-Webster's website for words that are spiking in look-ups.

"When [a person] looks up a word in the dictionary, that's a private thing," said Sokolowski. "But when many people look up the same word at the same time, usually cued by a news event or a news story, then it becomes a communal act. We can measure that."

As it turns out, look-ups of words related to Trump have indeed dominated Merriam-Webster's online dictionary over the past few months, beginning on day one.

CARNAGE (noun) car·nage

This was the most looked up word on the day of Donald Trump's inauguration, inspired no-doubt by a passage in his speech.

"This American carnage stops right here and stops right now," Trump said in his speech.

Merriam-Webster defines "carnage" as "Great and usually bloody slaughter or injury, as in battle."

"It's an unusual word for that day," Sokolowski said. "Certainly, people were paying attention."

FACT (noun)

During the first week of the new administration, Trump advisor Kelly Conway gave an interview to NBC's Chuck Todd defending press secretary Sean Spicer's comments about Trump and Barack Obama's inauguration crowd sizes, claiming that he was offering "alternative facts." Look-ups for the word "fact" almost immediately spiked.

"That's unusual for us to see a spike for such a basic word in English," said Sokolowski.

Merriam-Webster defines "fact" as "a piece of information presented as having objective reality."

"There's something really profound about simple words like that," said Sokolowski. "Objective reality, objective resources or references, these have all been put into question. And maybe that's the role of the dictionary, sometimes, is to call balls and strikes on spelling, certainly, and also the meanings of words."

VET (verb)

Donald Trump's Jan. 27 executive order banning entry for 90 days by citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen put the term "extreme vetting" on the national stage, and sent folks to the dictionary in droves.

"As a verb, 'vet' comes, believe it or not, from 'veterinarian'," said Sokolowski. "One hundred years ago or more, veterinarians would inspect very carefully the condition and health of an animal and it ultimately it became a verb."

Merriam-Webster's definition? "A way to examine something carefully."

"Extreme vetting seemed governmental all of a sudden," said Sokolowski. "And, so, people looked it up."

"Feminism" jumped around the time of the Women's March, as did "dossier," as the story about the British intelligence agent who'd compiled a controversial one on Trump developed. It's probably no surprise to learn that "wiretap" spent more than a week at the top of the chart.

Another word that Sokolowski said capture the public's attention? "Complicit."

COMPLICIT (adjective) com·pli·cit

"There were two spikes," said Sokolowski. "The initial one that had to do with the 'Saturday Night Live' sketch."

The second big spike came a few days later, when Ivanka Trump told CBS News in an interview, "I don't know what it means to be complicit."

The folks at Merriam-Webster became a part of that story, tweeting out the definition of "complicit" following the interview. A number of media outlets, including NPR, noted in headlines that the dictionary was "trolling" Ivanka Trump. Sokolowski doesn't see it that way.

"We comment on language," he said. "We don't comment on policy. We stick to the words. It turns out there is a national conversation about language that's been going on and the dictionary has a role to play. That conversation would be going on with or without us as an active participant, and we feel like this is a place we should be."

The occasional, non-political

If it may sometimes feel like our 45th president has been the only story these past few months, Sokolowski assured me that there were at least a few non-political words that captured the collective consciousness during Trump's nearly-first 100 days.

The word "gaffe" spiked following the Best Picture mix-up at the Oscars.

"There's a good example of the kind of words that is used by journalists, [but] it's not used by most people in their daily lives," said Sokolowski. "That sent people to the dictionary."

And more recently, the word "volunteer" saw a surge in look-ups, following the incident and accompanying viral video of a passenger on a United Airlines plane being forcibly removed.

"The way that word was used by United's own statement called into question its meaning, and people checked that definition," Sokolowski said.

Merriam-Webster defines "volunteer" as "Someone who does something without being forced to it."

"Clearly that was not exactly what people saw with that video," said Sokolowski.

In the end, Sokolowski says that the healthy traffic to their online dictionary and the spikes in look-ups of so many words related to domestic politics during Trump's first nearly-100 days reveals at least one undeniable "fact."

"Whether it's a corporation or a politician or a news media outlet, people pay attention to the words that are being used," he said. "And really, what it means is that words matter."

If there is something you have been itching to know more about, email The Curiosity Desk.

WGBH News is supported by:
Back to top