Peter Sokolowski is editor at large for Merriam-Webster.
What makes a person look up a word? There have been dictionaries of English for about 400 years, but only recently, with the introduction of online dictionaries, has it been possible to know which words are looked up in them. We probably all assumed that the answer was as clear as print on the page — that we look up the hard words, the words we don’t know. The assumption is supported by the way dictionaries evolved, since the earliest English dictionaries were essentially lists of vocabulary derived from French, Latin and Greek. The first known dictionary, written in 1604 by Robert Cawdrey, had entries for biliment and perfidious, but not for cat or door. Cawdrey thought we needed just the hard words.
It turns out that, today, people look up much more than just the hard words. After Merriam-Webster’s dictionary went online in 1996, it was finally possible to see which entries were consulted, and the data both confirmed and confounded assumptions. Some predictable groups of words were accounted for, including difficulties of English usage such as affect and effect, academic rhetorical terms such as irony and metaphor, and a handful of offensive words. More surprising were the two dominant categories: abstract nouns such as culture, integrity, love and democracy that are looked up in large numbers daily, and words that spike for a short time, driven by current events.
In 2018, the word justice became the rare word that arguably fits into both of these categories, a familiar and abstract noun that never drops into lookup obscurity but that was much more frequently looked up this year than in the past. When all the data was in, it was clearly our word of the year: Justice was looked up 74 percent more in 2018 than it was in 2017.
We have been monitoring online dictionary trends since before google became a verb. Recent examples include nationalism, which spiked following President Trump’s rally in October when he declared himself to be a “nationalist,” and maverick, which spiked following the death of Sen. John McCain.
What we saw with justice in 2018 was more like a continuous sequence of bumps in the data rather than a single outstanding spike; the word rose to the point of being just below the very top words of any given day, but remained there almost every single day, accounting for such a large increase in lookups. Rather than being driven by a single event, interest in this word correlates to many events in the news, including stories touching on racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, obstruction of justice, countless stories involving the Justice Department, and the specific use of justice as a synonym and title for a judge.
Justice may seem like a basic word, but it’s the basic words that often reflect the collective curiosity of the public and, perhaps, give us a clue about what sends people to the dictionary. Evidence suggests that we look up words we’re familiar with far more frequently than words we’ve only newly encountered. Princess was the most looked-up word after Princess Diana’s death in 1997. Love is the most looked-up word in the weeks before Valentine’s Day. Surreal was the most looked-up word after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Words are clearly looked up for reasons that go beyond spelling and basic meaning. For these words, people are interested in what may be addressed by the nuance and detail of a good definition. If they’re doing their jobs well, the definitions of love and surreal help to shape thoughts, reflections and maybe even the beginnings of philosophy. We shouldn’t assume that a person who looks up justice in the dictionary knows nothing about the word or the ideas that it stands for. We should assume only that such a person wants to know more. Curiosity is the opposite of ignorance.
And justice has a lot to tell us. It’s one of the words brought to English by the Normans, who imposed their legal system on the people of Britain following the Battle of Hastings in 1066. For that reason, nearly our entire judicial vocabulary came to English from Latin through French, including words such as judge, jury, arraignment and indictment. English already had law, fair and right, but justice conveyed a new idea: a system. It’s a bureaucracy of fairness, a method of redress, an expectation of correctness, an ideal of righteousness. It’s the basis of civil society as well as criminal punishment. We say “rule of law” to emphasize enforcement, but “justice system” to emphasize individual rights. It’s also aspirational: We seek justice.
The dictionary doesn’t measure the news; it measures the language. A word with broad meanings and wide-ranging applications inspired continued curiosity, and this curiosity says something about us collectively in 2018. Justice, in all its varied uses and functions, is on our minds.