It’s a word we’ve all known since grade school, but a concept that seems increasingly muddled.
That’s why, for the pros at Merriam-Webster, the 2018 Word of the Year is “justice.” The elastic term received a significant uptick in search traffic and framed many national conversations.
Merriam-Webster wrote about the choice in a blog post, which read in part:
The concept of justice was at the center of many of our national debates in the past year: racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, economic justice. In any conversation about these topics, the question of just what exactly we mean when we use the term justice is relevant, and part of the discussion.
This year’s news had many stories involving the division within the executive branch of government responsible for the enforcement of laws: the Department of Justice, sometimes referred to simply as “Justice.” Of course, the Mueller investigation itself is constantly in the news, and is being carried out through the Justice Department. Another big news story included yet another meaning of the word justice, as a synonym or title for “judge,” used frequently during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court.
Justice has varied meanings that do a lot of work in the language—meanings that range from the technical and legal to the lofty and philosophical. For many reasons and for many meanings, one thing’s for sure: justice has been on the minds of many people in 2018.
For many, the choice echoes news headlines and national conversations about politics and the rule of law.
Behind the uptick in searches for the word is the staggering amount of news coverage of the Justice Department as well as its focus in national debates throughout the year, the publisher explained in a press release. Social and criminal justice have been particularly hot topics in 2018, driving up public interest in the word.
However, President Donald Trump’s Twitter habit was another contributing factor. According to Merriam-Webster, there was a “spike in lookups of obstruction of justice in August, when President Trump tweeted his wish for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to stop the Mueller investigation.”
“It’s often familiar words for abstract concepts that are among the most looked up words,” said Emily Brewster, the publisher’s associate editor and editorial ambassador. “When common words like justice are used in contexts that are very specific, technical, or legal, people look them up in the dictionary for the detail and nuance that a definition can provide.”
The runners-up included other political terms and somewhat obscure pop-culture references.
Runner-ups to the Word of the Year are a mixed bag. They include “nationalism” (look-ups of the word was up 8,000 percent after Donald Trump used the word at a rally in October), pansexual (the term surged after actor and musician Janelle Monáe self-identified as such in a profile in Rolling Stone), and “lodestar,” the word that gained a lot of buzz after being included in the famous anonymous op-ed in The New York Times.
Oh yeah, and also “laurel,” because believe it or not, the laurel vs. yanni thing happened THIS YEAR. Just in case you needed a reminder of just how long 2018 has been…
Merriam-Webster’s choice was greeted with some satisfaction on Twitter:
— Col. Morris Davis (@ColMorrisDavis) December 17, 2018
Others remarked on the word’s timelessness:
We approve. It's been our word of the year for the last 140 years. https://t.co/qkhGfXjgPh
— American Bar Association (@ABAesq) December 17, 2018
Some were interested in the word’s origin. If you guessed Latin, you receive full marks.
The word “justice” comes from Latin, unlike a lot of the more emotional words that rose in Old English. Old English did have “law,” ″fair” and “right,” but never “justice,” in reference to a system of laws.
“It’s not a coincidence that it comes from the 12th century, which immediately follows the Norman conquest. When the Normans invaded England they brought their language, Old French, which was basically the then-modern version of Latin. They brought their system of government and laws and imposed them on the people they conquered, and that’s why all of the legal language in English today is Latin, just like the word justice,” Sokolowski explained. “It took the imposition of a system of laws to bring us the word justice.”
One rule breaker: “witness,” a word with a purely Old English start.
The word joins other choices for word of the year, including Dictionary.Com’s “misinformation” and The Oxford Dictionary’s choice:
— Inquirer (@inquirerdotnet) December 13, 2018
What word best captures your year, readers?