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What’s Your Favorite “- ism”?

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There’s feminism, socialism, racism, terrorism, radicalism – our American language is filled with words that end in “- ism.” So much so, in fact, that the Merriam-Webster dictionary publishing company named “- ism” as its word of the year for 2015. It is an interesting choice, to be sure, since “- ism” isn’t even a word, but a suffix.

Since 2003, Merriam-Webster has announced a Word of the Year List that features the most popular words searched that year on its website. Originally, the top words were found by looking at page hits and popular searches to its website.

In 2006, however, Merriam-Webster determined the list with an online poll. Website visitors were asked to vote for one word or phrase out of a list of 20 words and phrases that were frequently looked-up on the site over the previous year. In 2008, the list went back to its roots with user hits as the deciding factor once again.

The list seems to be a predictor of new words for the modern dictionary. Since 2003, only two of Merriam-Webster’s Words of the Year – “democracy” in 2003 and “integrity” in 2005 — were already included as dictionary entries.

“Blog,” the 2004 winner, was not a dictionary entry at the time of its win. Neither was “truthiness,” a word coined by The Colbert Report’s Stephen Colbert in 2006 or “w00t,” a slang word for happiness taken from role-paying games, in 2007.

What is clear is how the Words of the Year list provides a mirror into what is going on in our country that year.

For example, the fact that millions of Americans searched for the word “integrity” in 2007 reveals the impact of the many scandals in government and sports that occurred that year. Defined as a “firm adherence to a code” and “incorruptibility,” the word “integrity” has always been a popular word searched on the dictionary website, but in 2007, nearly 200,000 people wanted its definition online.

Top searched “- ism” words in 2015

Did you know there are 2,733 words ending in “- ism” entered in Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary? It’s true, and the following top seven “- ism” words accounted for millions of searches in 2015:

  • socialism
  • fascism
  • racism
  • feminism
  • communism
  • capitalism
  • terrorism

The suffix “ism” has its roots in Latin, Ancient Greek and medieval French. It was originally used to turn a verb into a noun, such as in “criticize/criticism” and “plagiarize/plagiarism.”

Since then, the suffix has been used for many other purposes. It has since acquired many other uses, including identifying a religion or practice (Calvinism, vegetarianism); a prejudice (racism, sexism); a belief system (altruism, pacifism); a physical condition (alcoholism, hypothyroidism), or a feature or trait (colloquialism, highbrowism).

Current events influence word searches. Due largely to the Supreme Court same-sex marriage ruling, “marriage” was also a popular word in 2015, with online look-ups for that word increasing by 57 percent in 2015.

Popular news affects word look-ups too. After Josh Duggar’s account on a site for people looking to cheat on their spouse was revealed to the public last year, Duggar admitted, “I have been the biggest hypocrite ever.” You guessed it. Searches for the word “hypocrite” surged. Interestingly, searches for “hypocrite” were three times more frequent on mobile devices than desktops last year.

These numbers reveal that dictionary use is changing along with our culture. With smartphones, we now have a dictionary in our pockets pretty much 24/7. We can look up words on a whim whenever and wherever we are.

More importantly, words we look up on our phones may indicate more about our daily lives as Americans than words looked up on office desktops. Some of this insightful information may be a little disconcerting, though. A case in point—“minion” was a runner-up on the Words of the Year list last year. The reason? Nothing too erudite — it was most likely the popularity of the animated movie Minions.

What will the Word of the Year be for 2016? With a presidential election year underway, one thing is certain. The word contest is up for grabs.

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Tricia Drevets

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