“For many reasons and for many meanings, one thing’s for sure: justice has been on the minds of many people in 2018,” Merriam-Webster associated editor Emily Brewster said in a statement.
There were 74 percent more look-ups for “justice” on Merriam-Webster.com than in 2017, according to the dictionary. In general, a constant stream of news stories about the Justice Department kept the word in the public consciousness throughout the year. In addition, “the concept of justice has been at the center of many national debates in 2018 — from social justice to criminal justice,” the dictionary noted.
But people also turned to the popular online dictionary to look up specific uses of the word after certain events and news stories this year.
For instance, searches for “obstruction of justice” spiked Aug. 1, the day President Trump tweeted for then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to stop “this Rigged Witch Hunt” — the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Searches for “justice” also spiked on Merriam-Webster.com during the Senate confirmation hearings for now-Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, the dictionary noted.
“Justice might seem like a very common word, but it’s often familiar words for abstract concepts that are among the most-looked-up words in the dictionary,” Merriam-Webster editor at large Peter Sokolowski said in a video accompanying the dictionary’s announcement. “When common words are used in contexts that are very specific, technical or legal, we turn to the dictionary for the detail and nuance that a definition would have."
Other words were pushed to the dictionary’s notable list because a single news event: Searches for “lodestar,” for instance, spiked after the New York Times published an anonymous op-ed by someone in the Trump administration that contained the word. “Nationalism” spiked in October after Trump declared he was a “nationalist.”
“You know, they have a word — it’s sort of became old-fashioned — it’s called a ‘nationalist,' " Trump said at a rally in Texas. "And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist. Nothing wrong. Use that word. Use that word.”
By comparison, searches for “justice” were more consistent throughout the year.
“The word and the concept of justice has been at the center of so many of our national debates in the past year: Racial year. Social justice. Criminal justice. Economic justice,” Sokolowski said. "Any conversation about these topics can naturally lead to seeking a clearer idea of what we mean when we speak of justice.”
Not all of the dictionary’s top words in 2018 were related to politics.
“Laurel” spiked in May after an audio recording went viral, asking its listeners “What do you hear?! Yanny or Laurel” and prompting an Internet debate not seen since the likes of the blue-and-black dress. “Pansexual” spiked in April after Janelle Monáe discussed her pansexuality in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine.
Merriam-Webster also saw spikes for three words after the deaths of famous figures year: “maverick” for former senator John McCain, “excelsior” for comic book writer Stan Lee and “respect” for music legend Aretha Franklin.
“Looking at the year through the prism of vocabulary by analyzing our look-up data reminds us that words matter,” Sokolowski said. “Through the dictionary, we can make these connections with words that tell us something about our culture, our language and ourselves.”