This is the year when a sea of pink dominated the streets of several American cities, the year when #MeToo became a symbolic driving force against sexual misconduct by men, and when a group of women — “The Silence Breakers” — graced the cover of Time as the voices that launched that movement.
These events, says Merriam-Webster, are the reasons 2017 was a big year for feminism — at least literally.
The online dictionary has dubbed “feminism” its word of the year, meaning it is the most-searched word on Merriam-Webster’s website. Lookups for the definition of feminism increased by 70 percent over last year. There were also several major spikes that coincide with major news events, said Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor at large.
“No one word can ever encapsulate all the news, events, or stories of a given year, particularly a year with so much news and so many stories,” Sokolowski said. “But when a single word is looked up with great volume, it also stands out as one associated with several different important stories. We can learn something about ourselves through the prism of vocabulary.”
Sokolowski said the first such spike happened in January, when thousands of women packed the streets of several cities in the United States and beyond in a massive act of defiance against a newly inaugurated president. Discussions on what the word meant to attendees and organizers of the Women’s March, and whether the protest was a show of feminism, fueled the spike, he said.
“It’s difficult for me to call myself a feminist in the classic sense because it seems to be very anti-male and it certainly is very pro-abortion, and I’m neither anti-male or pro-abortion. So, there’s an individual feminism, if you will, that you make your own choices…. I look at myself as a product of my choices, not a victim of my circumstances,” Conway said during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor in Maryland last February.
Conway praised Trump for hiring women and encouraged women to run for president. She also decried the “presumptive negativity” about women in positions of power.
“You know, this whole sisterhood, this whole ‘let’s go march for women’s rights’ and, you know, just constantly talking about what women look like or what they wear or making fun of their choices or presuming that they’re not as powerful as the men around,” she said.
Conway did not respond to an email requesting comment Tuesday morning about Merriam-Webster crediting her statement for the popularity of the word “feminism.”
Merriam-Webster said the storm of revelations in the latter half of 2017 and the emergence of #MeToo, a hashtag that countless of women used on social media to say that they have been victims of some form of sexual misconduct or harassment, resulted in a steady increase in searches for what feminism is.
The news cycle during the latter half of 2017 was dominated with stories about sexual assault and sexual harassment. The public watched the fall from grace of one popular and powerful man after another — Harvey Weinstein, Sen. Al Franken, Rep. John Conyers Jr., Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Louis C.K. and several others.
Allegations of sexual misconduct against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, as first revealed by The Washington Post, rocked the special election in Alabama, where voters on Tuesday are selecting a candidate to fill the Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Movies also played a role.
Merriam-Webster said curiosity about the definition of feminism spiked following the release of “Wonder Woman,” headlined by Jewish actress Gal Gadot and created by the first woman to direct a big-budget superhero movie, and the Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” based on a novel about a dystopian and totalitarian society where women are stripped of their rights and forced into sexual servitude.
The definition of feminism has evolved since it was first entered in the English dictionary by Noah Webster in 1841. Once defined as simply “the qualities of females,” feminism is now “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests,” according to Merriam-Webster.
Another word that became popular this year is “complicit,” which ranks No. 2 in Merriam-Webster’s top 10 list and was recently declared word of the year by dictionary.com. Both online dictionaries said spikes in searches for the word involved Ivanka Trump, the president’s oldest daughter and a current White House adviser. Merriam-Webster said the word spiked in March when Ivanka Trump responded to accusations that she was being complicit in her father’s decisions.
“I don’t know that the critics who may say that of me, if they found themselves in this very unique and unprecedented situation that I am now in, would do any differently than I am doing,” Ivanka Trump said. She added later: “I don’t know what it means to be complicit. But you know, I hope time will prove that I have done a good job and, much more importantly, that my father’s administration is the success I know it will be.”
She was later parodied by “Saturday Night Live,” when Scarlett Johansson, dressed in a glittery gold gown, glided into a gilded room as she modeled for a fragrance called Complicit.
Other words that made Merriam-Webster’s top 10 are: recuse, popularized by Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from investigations involving Russia and the presidential election; dotard, an old-fashioned word that North Korean President Kim Jong Un used to described President Trump; and gaffe, specifically, the envelope fiasco that led to the announcement of the wrong winner for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
Merriam-Webster has become popular over the past two years for its viral trolling of Trump. The dictionary mocked Trump several times in 2016, when the then-presidential candidate misspelled words in his tweets (unpresidented, honer, leightweight and chocker).
John Wagner and Amy B Wang contributed to this report.