Word of the year: Justice

Merriam-Webster have named ‘justice’ as their word of the year based on how often it was looked up. They have also listed another ten top lookup works. It is interesting to see what prompted interest in the words.


Our Word of the Year for 2018 is justice. It was a top lookup throughout the year at Merriam-Webster.com, with the entry being consulted 74% more than in 2017.

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.”

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.

1. Nationalism

Lookups for nationalism spiked 8,000% on October 22nd and 23rd after President Trump announced at a rally in Texas:

“You know, they have a word — it’s sort of became old-fashioned — it’s called a ‘nationalist.’ And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist. Nothing wrong. Use that word. Use that word.”

Nationalism is defined as “loyalty and devotion to a nation,” especially “exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.”

We seem to have little overt nationalism in New Zealand.

2. Pansexual

Pansexual saw a spike in lookups in April, when singer Janelle Monáe was quoted in Rolling Stone magazine self-identifying with the term. Today the word most often is used to mean “of, relating to, or characterized by sexual desire or attraction that is not limited to people of a particular gender identity or sexual orientation,” but the word entered the English language in the early 20th century with a different use: “tending to suffuse all experience and conduct with erotic feeling.”

The semantic breadth of the prefix pan-, which means “all” or “completely,” has made pansexual a useful alternative to bisexual for those who see gender as a spectrum rather than a binary.

I haven’t seen pansexual used much if at all here, but gender labels have certainly become big topics.

3. Lodestar

The anonymous op-ed in The New York Times said to have been written by a senior official in the Trump administration caused lookups to spike for lodestar (and its less common variant loadstar) in early September. The term was used in this passage:

We may no longer have Senator McCain. But we will always have his example — a lodestar for restoring honor to public life and our national dialogue. Mr. Trump may fear such honorable men, but we should revere them.
— The New York Times, 6 Sept. 2018

Lodestar originally meant “a star that leads or guides (especially the North Star).” It now is used to mean “one that serves as an inspiration, model, or guide.”

This also didn’t feature in New Zealand.

4. Epiphany

There’s nothing remarkable about the word epiphany experiencing a spike in lookups in early January: the earliest use of the word is to refer to a Christian festival held on January 6th in honor of the coming of the three kings to the infant Jesus Christ.

But lookups of epiphany spiked in August when the word featured in the trailer for a song in a forthcoming album from the K-Pop group BTS. In the song, the word functions in its metaphorical senses having to do with the sudden perception of the essential nature or meaning of something, or an illuminating realization. The word’s Greek ancestor, epiphainein, means “to manifest.”

Pop culture can have a big influence on language. I haven’t heard of K-Pop, but maybe they are popular here with younger people.

5. Feckless

Samantha Bee’s segment about the Trump administration’s immigration policy of separating children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border included her plea, directed at Ivanka Trump, to “do something about your dad’s immigration policies,” then using a disparaging and obscene word modified by feckless, meaning “ineffective” or “worthless.”

The feck in feckless is a Scottish word meaning “value” or “worth.” And, interestingly enough, feckless does indeed have an antonym, although it is quite rare: feckful, meaning “efficient” or “effective.”

Another term confined to US use.

6. Laurel

It was the middle of May when one of the dictionary’s wallflowers shot into the lookups ether: laurel was up more than 3300%, all because of an audio clip that had divided netizens into two distinct group, those who heard laurel and those who heard yanny. (The clip came from the audio pronunciation file at Vocabulary.com’s entry for laurel.)

Linguists bounded in to explain the phenomenon—it has to do with whether lower or higher frequencies are more prominent, for an individual or because of audio quality—and the New York Times built a fun little tool that makes it possible for listeners to hear both.

News to me. Will I check to see if I’m laurel or yanny? Too busy for now.

7. Pissant

The sometimes vulgar and generally obscure word pissant enjoyed a brief but intense period of lexicographical popularity early in the year, when it rose 115,000% in Merriam-Webster.com lookups. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady called a radio station out during an interview after a DJ on the station had several days earlier described Brady’s young daughter with the word.

Pissant, which originally was a dialectal term for “ant,” has been used as a generalized term of abuse for a person or thing deemed insignificant since the early 20th century. Its origin is exactly what one might expect, a blending of the urinary sense of piss and the formicine sense of ant.

Another very US context.

8. Respect

When Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, died on August 16th, the title of one of her most enduring hits was ubiquitous in tributes to her, and respect became a top lookup.

The world had known Franklin’s song for 50 years—in which time it has become an anthem for both the civil rights and feminist movements—but the word respect has been part of the English language since the 14th century. It comes from the Latin respectus, which literally means “the act of looking back.” It’s an apt etymology for a word that served as a focal point of a global appreciation for the decades of music Aretha Franklin had given the world.

Aretha Franklin was well respected here, and her death got some attention and coverage.

9. Maverick

Maverick spiked following the death of Arizona Senator John McCain in August. Interest in the word came as no surprise, since McCain had often been described with this word, meaning “an independent individual who does not go along with a group or party.”

Before maverick described independent people, it meant “an unbranded range animal; especially a motherless calf.” The word comes from the name of Samuel A. Maverick, a 19th century lawyer and politician who, although not a cattle rancher, ended up with some cattle taken as payment for a debt. Since he neglected to brand any identifying marks on the cattle, many of the “independent” animals were taken by other ranchers who branded them as their own.

McCain is well known here, but we tend to not have political mavericks in New Zealand. John A. Lee? Marilyn Waring? ( I saw her in the news a few days ago). Winston Peters when it suits him perhaps, but he is really a political opportunist who is happy to be anti-maverick when he gets what he wants, limelight and power.

10. Excelsior

Stan Lee’s motto and salutation excelsior spiked following his death in November. He used the word to conclude each of the monthly columns he wrote for Marvel Comics, and was so closely associated with it that he was even sometimes asked to say the word in public.

Excelsior is the Latin word for “higher” and is etymologically related to the words excel and excellent.

Lee’s death got a bit of a mention here but it wasn’t a big deal.

This is an interesting bunch of words, obviously quite US-centric.

Note that these are words that were popular to look up, but that may mean people weren’t sure what they meant. There are likely to be many words in popular use that people didn’t need to look up in a dictionary.


  1. Kitty Catkin

     /  18th December 2018

    Feckless isn’t a US word; it’s English in origin and not particularly uncommon; I have always heard it used of someone who’s careless and ineffectual It’s even in my thesaurus which is English, of course, and not (God forbid) American.

    I have only ever heard pissant used as in ‘Emmanuel Kant was a real pissant/He was very rarely stable’ and assumed that, as it’s the French for pissing, that it was a French expression.

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  18th December 2018

      Like ‘piss-le-lit’ for dandelions, which are known as ‘piss-the-beds’ in England.

      • Gezza

         /  18th December 2018

        Coarse lot, the poms.

        • Kitty Catkin

           /  18th December 2018

          Rather unrefined, I agree.

          I do have a dim memory of reading that about the derivation of pissant, but will always associate it with The Philosophers’ Song.

          Rene Descartes was in a bar and the barman asked if he’d like another drink. ‘I think not.’ said Descartes…and vanished.

      • robertguyton

         /  18th December 2018

        “Pis en lit” donchaknow.

        • Kitty Catkin

           /  18th December 2018

          My mistake, I inadvertently translated it from the English.

  2. Kitty Catkin

     /  18th December 2018

    I can’t see that nationalism, respect, lode/loadstar, feckless, pissant, excelsior or even maverick are American usages. They are all used in UK English and always have been, Excelsior is used rather like eureka and it was at one time a packing material.

    The shades of night were falling fast/The (snow?) was falling faster/When through an Alpine village passed/A youth who bore through snow and ice/A banner with this strange device/Excelsior !

    Parodied as ‘The shades of night were falling fast/The snow was falling faster/When through an Alpine village passed/An Alpine village pastor.’

    The idiot with the banner reaches the mountain top and falls dead, still holding the banner, as I recall.