The 2017 word of the year, according to Merriam-Webster, is feminism — and looking back at some of the news this year, it only makes sense.
According to the makers of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word of the year is chosen if it’s looked up in high volumes on the dictionary’s website and shows significant year-over-year increase in inquiries. Merriam-Webster defines feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes,” as well as “organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests.”
For the word, a noted spike in look-ups came in January with the Women’s March rallies held across the US — becoming the largest protest in the country’s history — and around the world. Another occurred in February when Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, declared she did not consider herself a feminist “in the classic sense.”
Women leaders also exemplified the concept in Congress. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell uttered the words, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” about Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s persistent objection to the confirmation of now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the phrase became a rallying cry for women who have been shut down, ignored, or silenced for voicing their opinions. Rep. Maxine Waters became an icon of the movement not only for her staunch opposition to Trump, but especially for her brandishing of congressional procedure that she was “reclaiming my time,” as she confronted Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin for seemingly stalling during a House Financial Services Committee hearing in July.
New books celebrated “nasty women” and questioned the status quo of the feminist movement, while old books like Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale found new popularity (further buoyed by the latter’s harrowing adaptation on Hulu this year). Wonder Woman, the first solo female superhero movie, smashed box office expectations, raising the profiles even higher for star Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins.
Words like Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “intersectionality” found new audiences among a new generation introduced to feminism, who were concerned with the movement being inclusive of all types of women, across races, gender expressions, classes, religions, and other identities.
Of course, the current #MeToo phenomenon of people sharing their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse has furthered interest in the feminist cause. The movement, which has taken down powerful men in entertainment, politics, and the media, was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year — quite a contrast with last year’s honoree, then-President-elect Trump, whose history includes decades of statements objectifying women (including being caught on tape bragging that he could grab women’s genitals) and more than a dozen sexual harassment or misconduct allegations made against him.
Other top words this year include concepts that have characterized many people’s views of the Trump administration, including “complicit” and “recuse.” “Dotard” spiked after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reportedly made that insult toward Trump; the astronomy term “syzygy” spiked with the full solar eclipse in August; and “gaffe” got a lot of look-ups after the Academy Award for Best Picture was incorrectly presented to La La Land instead of Moonlight.
Feminism, though, falls well in line with other top American English words of the year previously declared by Merriam-Webster. Like the past five words (“socialism” and “capitalism” in 2012, “science” in 2013, “culture” in 2014, “-ism” in 2015, and “surreal” in 2016), feminism speaks to broader themes of discussion throughout the year, as Americans think about our economic systems, war, religious institutions, our changing environment, unresolved social injustice, and growing political discord.
“Feminism,” like the words that came before it, signals a national grappling with the concepts and institutions we sometimes take for granted until we’re forced to examine their complexities. And if the current news is any indication, interest in feminism likely won’t die down in 2018.