NOEL KING, HOST:
And these days everyone has the Internet on their phone, and so it's easier than ever to look up words that confuse us. But that also means it's easier than ever for the dictionary to know what we're looking up. So when Merriam-Webster put out its annual list of top 10 words of the year, we decided to call them and see if we could learn something from what people are searching. Our co-host, Rachel Martin, talked about some of the top words of 2017 with Merriam-Webster's editor-at-large, Peter Sokolowski.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: I want to get right to this; none of this countdown from No. 10. Let's start with what everybody wants to know, which is what is the No. 1 word of 2017?
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: The Merriam-Webster word of the year is feminism.
MARTIN: Feminism the No. 1 word of the year. I mean, can you measure when this happened? Because clearly the second half of the year is when we saw the #MeToo movement explode and allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault, which provoked a bigger conversation about women and their role in society. And I imagine that then triggered a lot of online searches for the word feminism.
SOKOLOWSKI: It absolutely did. And you're completely correct. But, you know, there are three other occasions and two in particular that had very specific spikes. The first was the women's march in January...
SOKOLOWSKI: ...That had an enormous spike. And there were lots of conversations, as you know, lots of discussions whether this march was feminist, what kind of feminism was represented in the march. And the word was sort of in the air. The next big spike we saw was in February, when Kellyanne Conway said in an interview that she didn't consider herself a feminist.
And that's the kind of thing that triggers dictionary curiosity because the word itself was the story. There was the Hulu series of "The Handmaid's Tale," which not only got great reviews but got, again, a huge amount of interest in terms of what it says about the culture today. And, of course, the solo film of Wonder Woman.
MARTIN: What about some of your other favorites?
SOKOLOWSKI: Our runners-up tend to be sort of one-hit wonders. In other words, words that are associated with an individual story. So what we have is, for example, complicit, the word that was used in a skit on "Saturday Night Live" about Ivanka Trump. And then the word was used in an interview with Ivanka Trump. And there in the interview she said, I don't know what complicit means. And you better believe that sends people to the dictionary.
MARTIN: How long has Merriam-Webster been doing this?
SOKOLOWSKI: The word of the year?
SOKOLOWSKI: Since 2003. The real interesting story here is that we never had a measure of the public's curiosity until we put the dictionary online. And suddenly, we could see what words people were looking up and when. The first time this happened was just 20 years ago when Princess Diana died. And the word that was most looked up was paparazzi. You know, 9/11, the most looked-up word was the word surreal. And so we were able to see what the public was really thinking about according to what they were looking up in the dictionary.
MARTIN: So interesting. You presumably have been doing this for a while. Have you learned anything about how we are evolving as English speakers based on the words that make up the top 10 lists over time?
SOKOLOWSKI: The first thing I've learned is that words matter, that people do pay attention. And that in an age of alternative facts and fake news, having a neutral arbiter of meaning ends up being pretty important to a lot of people. And turning to the dictionary in these moments is not just for spelling or pronunciation, but also maybe the beginning of reflection and philosophy. I mean, the word love is one of the most looked-up words in the dictionary, and it's probably not for spelling.
MARTIN: (Laughter) Peter Sokolowski is the editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster. Thank you so much, Peter, and I guess we'll just see what new words come to the fore in 2018.
SOKOLOWSKI: Exactly. Happy New Year.
MARTIN: Happy New Year.
(SOUNDBITE OF SUN GLITTERS' "WALKING ASIDE AS YOU DRIFT AWAY")
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