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'Justice' Is Merriam-Webster's Word Of The Year For 2018

"Golden lady justice" in Bruges, Belgium.
Emmanuel Huybrechts
Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/ensh

The word “justice” has been intertwined with our culture and society for hundreds of years. It’s also Merriam-Webster’s 2018 word of the year.

Peter Sokolowski, who — when he’s not a jazz host at New England Public Radio — is Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large, and Emily Brewster is associate editor. Merriam-Webster is based in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Kari Njiiri, NEPR: So how did a common word like “justice” become word of the year?

Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster: Turns out that many people look up common words in the dictionary, and our measure is a quantitative one. We’re looking at the words that were looked up in 2018 much more frequently than in 2017.

And so what we saw, to our surprise — this word that was sort of under the radar of many of the different news stories, whether they are racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, or justice regarding income equality. These were stories that were taking place throughout the year, and this was a word that was looked up throughout the year in greater numbers.

Is there a particular definition?

Emily Brewster, Merriam-Webster: We have no way of knowing exactly which sense of justice people are turning to most often. But we do know that the word has had a number of different meanings, and it has different applications in different contexts.

The oldest meaning of justice, and one that is still very important today, is “the maintenance or administration of what is just, especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims, or the assignment of merited rewards or punishment.” It’s a pretty technical definition, but the word also has to do with the quality of being just impartial or fair.

Another of the words looked up most frequently was “nationalism.”

Peter Sokolowski: Indeed, nationalism. Not a surprise for most of us. It was used by President Trump himself in a rally. He declared himself to be a nationalist. This is a word that has also been looked up frequently in the past year, so it’s been on our minds. But when a prominent person uses a word like this in a speech, it sends many people to the dictionary. We saw a significant spike after that use.

There’s another word on your top 10 list: “respect.”

Emily Brewster: In August, when Aretha Franklin died, the word “respect” shot to the top lookups, because people were using that word in tributes to the Queen of Soul.

Did people not understand the word?

Emily Brewster: I don’t think that it’s a matter of people not understanding the word. I think they were turning to the dictionary, and looking up the word “respect,” to get a greater sense of the nuance of the word, and possibly in writing their own tributes to her.

What other words are in the top 10 list?

Emily Brewster: One of my favorites is “laurel.” I don’t know how many of our listeners will remember that in May of this year, there was an audio clip that went around on social media, and it was the pronunciation for the word “laurel.” But many people, when they heard it, heard “yanny” instead. And it had to do with which frequency their ear was picking up on, if they were picking up on the higher frequencies or the lower frequencies of this audio clip. But many people were looking up this somewhat obscure, not frequently looked up word, “laurel.”

Here’s another word that I don’t think many people would have varying interpretations of: that’s the word “pissant.”

Emily Brewster: Yes, “pissant” was looked up far more frequently than it has been in previous years, all because of an incident in January, when a radio DJ used the word to describe New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s daughter.

I suspect most people may not know exactly what that meant, but it sounds impolite.

Emily Brewster: Yes, it originally was a dialectal for an ant, but in current use, it describes an insignificant person or thing. So, not a nice word to call anybody.

For a longer interview about Merriam-Webster's list, check out the latest "In Contrast" podcast.

Kari Njiiri is a senior reporter and longtime host and producer of "Jazz Safari," a musical journey through the jazz world and beyond, broadcast Saturday nights on NEPM Radio. He's also the local host of NPR’s "All Things Considered."
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