News Commentary

Merriam-Webster chooses ‘ism’ as word of the year

Associated Press

NEW YORK – Merriam-Webster has picked a small but powerful suffix as word of the year: ism.

But not just any ism. The top isms to earn high traffic spikes and big bumps in lookups on the dictionary company’s website in 2015 over the year before are socialism, fascism, racism, feminism, communism, capitalism and terrorism.

“We had a lot on our minds this year,” mused Peter Sokolowski, the Springfield, Massachusetts-based company’s editor at large, in a recent interview. “It’s a serious year. These are words of ideas and practices. We’re educating ourselves.”

Pinpointing reasons why words go on the run at Merriam-Webster is an educated guess. The dictionary company tracks corresponding news events to link lookups to real life. And its researchers also crunch data in a way that filters out common words frequently looked up year after year after year when making their top annual choices.

Lookups for fascism corresponded to release of video in November showing a white police officer shooting a black teenager in Chicago, and the criminal charges that followed. Merriam-Webster also saw a stronger correlation in heavy traffic on its site for that word and “fascist” and flash points in Republican Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, including reports on his anti-Islam rhetoric.

The isms often collide, driving each other in popularity, Sokolowski said.

“Fascism we more closely associate as the response to various acts of terrorism. After the attacks in Paris and the attacks in Colorado Springs and in San Bernardino, and because of Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims, we then see the word fascism spike,” he said.

Lookups of racism were high all year but had two noticeable spikes, one after the South Carolina church shootings and another amid the University of Missouri protests.

Sokolowski, a lexicographer by training, said one spike in lookups for feminism came in April and corresponded with reports on an Ohio middle school student who wore a T-shirt with the word printed on it in a school photo, only to have it digitally blacked out by school administrators. The school later apologized.

Reports on Caitlyn Jenner, Amy Schumer and Hillary Clinton all included discussion of feminism, as did reviews of the film “Mad Max: Fury Road” and chatter about previews of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

In addition, Emma Watson’s 2014 UN speech made the news again twice this year; first for inspiring Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai to call herself a feminist in a viral video, and again when it was revealed that Watson was asked not to use the word at all in the speech, Sokolowski noted.

The word socialism has Bernie Sanders to thank for its popularity.

“The big spikes have been associated with the fact that we have a presidential candidate who identifies as a Democratic Socialist,” Sokolowski said. “We saw that even though socialism was in the Top 10 of the most looked-up words in the whole history of the site, it increased in a spike beginning in late July when Bernie Sanders had a multicity rally that was organized through social media and attracted about 100,000 people in 3,000 communities or more around the country.”

In October, lookups for socialism spiked again during the first Democratic debate featuring Sanders and Clinton.

John Morse, president and publisher of Merriam-Webster, said socialism led the ism charge after a strong showing in 2012, but the company decided to go with the broader suffix instead as word of the year “because it was hard not to see a bigger story staring us in the face, which was the profusion of ism words all over the most frequently looked-up list.”

Other ism words on the move at Merriam-Webster.com this year were professionalism, masochism, federalism, pragmatism, existentialism, hedonism and Marxism.

Other words that sent people to the site in high numbers include marriage, hypocrite, respect, inspiration and minion. The company does not release raw numbers of lookups.

“Inspiration still kind of baffles us,” Morse said. “I can’t really tell you what it is in the world of 2015 that is so much different from ’14 that inspiration has moved up.” 

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