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“Ism” is Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year

Merriam-Webster couldn't pick just one "ism."
Merriam-Webster couldn't pick just one "ism."
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The word of the year isn't a word at all, according to Merriam-Webster dictionaries: It's a suffix, "ism."

Merriam-Webster joins a proud tradition of not picking actual words for Word of the Year. In November, Oxford Dictionaries said its "word" of the year was the "face with tears of joy" emoji.

But Merriam-Webster's choice — which is based on growing numbers of people looking up "ism" words on the dictionary's website — does make a weird sort of sense.

Some of the most prominent "isms," according to what the dictionary company told the Associated Press about its traffic: socialism, fascism, racism, feminism, communism, capitalism and terrorism.

This was the year one major party presidential candidate was an adherent of socialism and another was frequently described as calling for fascism. It was "the year we obsessed over identity," as New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris wrote, a year where news stories about racism and feminism gained prominence. It was the year Americans became more frightened of terrorism than they've been at any time since 9/11.

This isn't the first time an "ism" gets the honor: "capitalism" and "socialism" shared it in 2012. But this year, "ism" will join previous Words of the Year that, read together, form a sort of one-word recent history of discourse in the US. In 2003: "democracy," followed by "quagmire." In 2004, "blog" and "incumbent." In 2006, "truthiness." "Bailout" in 2008, followed by "austerity" in 2010.

Go deeper:

  • Vox has written about a lot of "isms" this year. Here are 6 questions about socialism you were too embarrassed to ask. Here are fascism experts on whether Donald Trump is a fascist.
  • Here's why a debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton about capitalism was important.
  • Which terrorist attacks get labeled as terrorism — and why does that matter? It's a question we considered after San Bernardino and the Charleston shootings.

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