The ball has dropped in Times Square, the champagne bottles have been emptied, and the calendar page has been turned. But before we close the Curiosity Desk’s book on 2017, we have one more item of business: A look back at the year that was — and the words that defined it. For that, I sat down with Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Springfield-based dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster, to chat about Merriam-Webster's top 10 words of 2017.
gaffe | noun | a social or diplomatic blunder; a noticeable mistake
It was the Best Picture mixup at the Oscars in early 2017 that put this word on the list. "[It's] really one of these journalism words; a word that's used in headlines," said Sokolowski. "There's a whole category, I think, of words that are looked up that are cued by the press."
hur·ri·cane | noun | a tropical cyclone with winds of 74 miles (119 km) per hour or greater that occurs especially in the western Atlantic, that is usually accompanied by rain, thunder and lightning, and that sometimes moves into temperate latitudes
The massive storms Irma and Maria drove massive traffic to this word online. "Hurricane or other storm words, like tornado or cyclone, are words that get looked up because they seem specific," said Sokolowski. "And our definitions are like recipes, so looking up a word like that in the dictionary does give you important information."
fed·er·al·ism | noun | the distribution of power in an organization (such as a government) between a central authority and the constituent units
As debate was raging in Washington about the future of health care in America, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) framed the choice between Obamacare and what the Republicans were proposing as a choice between "socialism or federalism."
"This is a very interesting vocabulary issue that's very peculiarly American," said Sokolowski. "We call our national government the federal government. But in that sentence it is referring to ... states' rights."
gy·ro | noun | a sandwich especially of lamb and beef, tomato, onion, and yogurt sauce on pita bread
Jimmy Fallon gets the credit (blame?) for this one.
syz·y·gy | noun | the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies (such as the sun, moon and earth during a solar or lunar eclipse) in a gravitational system
Mother Nature provided one of the year's biggest stories, a total solar eclipse, and with that rare event came enormous interest in this rare word. "It was a vocabulary lesson for the whole country," said Sokolowski. "This was a technical, scientific term that's also kind of fun to say."
dot·ard | noun | a person in his or her dotage
As tensions between the U.S. and North Korea ratcheted up in September, the Korean Central News Agency released a statement from North Korean president Kim Jong Un calling President Donald Trump, among other things, "a mentally deranged U.S. dotard."
"It's an archaic word," said Sokolowski. "It was used in Shakespeare's time." Sokolowski suspects that North Korean translators are using very old bilingual dictionaries.
em·pa·thy | noun | the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experience of another.
Sokolowsi says no single news event led to huge spikes in lookups for this word, but he nevertheless saw a significant "rising tide" of interest in "empathy" throughout the year. "Americans were curious about this [word] much more in 2017 than in 2016."
re·cuse | verb | to disqualify (oneself) as judge in a particular case; broadly : to remove (oneself) from participation to avoid a conflict of interest
Attorney General Jeff Sessions did eventually recuse himself from any investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, but questions about whether he would drove news headlines for weeks. "It's not surprising," said Sokolowski. "Words that have a legal, technical meaning ... these are words that people look up."
com·plic·it | adjective | helping to commit a crime or do wrong in some way
In March, "Saturday Night Live" aired a parody commercial for a perfume called "Complicit," starring Scarlett Johansson as Ivanka Trump. Not long afterwards, CBS News' Gayle King asked Ivanka Trump about whether she and her husband were complicit to goings-on in the White House. Ivanka Trump responded that she "doesn't know what it means to be complicit."
"First of all, that's an invitation to the dictionary for everybody," said Sokolowski. "And second of all, that means that the word itself was the story."
fem·i·nism | noun | the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes
Sokolowski says that "feminism" was the clear winner in 2017. Already one of the most looked-up words in the dictionary’s history, "feminism" saw an impressive 70 percent increase in lookups over 2016. Interest in the word spiked multiple times throughout the year including around the 2017 Women's March in Washington, D.C. in January; around the release of box office hit "Wonder Woman" and Hulu’s TV series, "The Handmaid's Tale"; and as the #MeToo movement has picked up steam.
If there is something that has recently piqued your curiosity, use your words and email The Curiosity Desk. We might just look into it for you.