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The Words The World Turned To In 2018

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Merriam-Webster, the dictionary publisher, has released its annual list of words of the year based on searches of its website. At the top of the list (laughter) - hold on now. We're going to first turn to Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster. He joins us from WNPR in Hartford, Conn. Peter, thanks for being with us.

PETER SOKOLOWSKI: It's great to be with you.

SIMON: To delay the discovery just a bit, how do you come up with a list like this?

SOKOLOWSKI: Well, it is a quantitative measure of curiosity about language. And we recognize that the top most looked up words day in, day out, year in, year out really don't change a lot. They tend to be abstract words, often with classical roots. They're words like integrity and democracy and pragmatic and love. The word love is one of the top words.

SIMON: Aww. I'm so glad to hear that.

SOKOLOWSKI: And what we want to do is explain a little bit more about something about this year that was different from last year. And so we do a year-over-year comparison to find the top word looked up in the dictionary this year compared with last year, and that's our word of the year.

SIMON: OK. Well, let's build up to a big crescendo. What's another word of the year?

SOKOLOWSKI: Well, we have a top 10 list of words that spiked because of individual news stories. So nationalism was a little bit higher this year overall, but it really spiked in late October when President Trump declared himself to be a nationalist. And that sent many people to the dictionary as, you know, the utterances of presidents often do, and that word is really No. 2 on the list.

SIMON: Let me ask about another one that I gather is on the list, one of my favorites, feckless.

SOKOLOWSKI: (Laughter) Yes.

SIMON: And you might have to be careful talking about this.

SOKOLOWSKI: (Laughter) Well, it's an interesting thing because, you know, again, we're measuring the language. We're not really measuring the news. And in this case, the news was about the language, and that was Samantha Bee's segment about the Trump administration's immigration policy of separating children. And she used very strong language indeed. And she used feckless, which means kind of worthless, to modify another even stronger word, and that got a lot of attention all by itself.

SIMON: I don't want to delay the mystery any longer. What is the most looked up word?

SOKOLOWSKI: Our word of the year for 2018 is justice. It was the top look up throughout the year.

SIMON: And how do you explain it?

SOKOLOWSKI: Well, what's interesting to us is that this was a word that was just below the radar in terms of our data. We usually look at the top 20, 25 words. This word was hovering more like at the 35 position for almost every day of the year, and that's really because of all of the stories when you think about issues of racial justice, social justice and criminal justice that have been in the news and, of course, the Justice Department itself and all of the stories that were attached to Jeff Sessions and to the Mueller investigation. We had a particular spike on the term obstruction of justice after President Trump tweeted his request to the attorney general to end the Mueller investigation. And, of course, the word justice is also a word that we use for a judge or a title for judge and, of course...

SIMON: Ah, the Kavanaugh hearing.

SOKOLOWSKI: Exactly, that was another point of interest. And so what we saw was this was a word for many different reasons that was looked up frequently throughout the year.

SIMON: Peter, give me a word I should use in the coming year, you know, one that we've maybe forgotten about or misused or overlooked.

SOKOLOWSKI: I always love the word sesquipedalian.

SIMON: That's a - an insect with 60 legs or something? What is it?

SOKOLOWSKI: It's one given to using long words.

SIMON: (Laughing) You know, I've been called that, and I bet you have, too.

SOKOLOWSKI: You know, I just love language.

SIMON: Yeah, well, me, too. Peter Sokolowski at Merriam-Webster. Thanks so much for joining us, Peter. Happy new year.

SOKOLOWSKI: Happy new year to you.

SIMON: And in the coming year, may you use the words you really love. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.