Merriam-Webster's plea: It's not too late to block 'fascism' as word of the year

The Merriam-Webster dictionary Tweeted earlier this week that 'fascism' is the most looked-up word so far in 2016, making it likely to become the word of the year.

Federico Gambarini/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP/File
A carnival float depicts Donald Trump and the inscription 'Make Fascism Great Again' in Duesseldorf, Germany, Feb. 8, 2016.

By the end of December, the word fascism could end up being the “Word of the Year” crowned by Merriam-Webster based on the number of searches it received over the year.

But the dictionary company joked on Twitter earlier this week that if its followers don’t want this year to be remembered by the negative word, it’s not too late to change it.

Its Twitter followers took the plea seriously, resulting in flummadiddle and puppy becoming trending searches since Thursday, although the company also admitted that despite frantic searches now, the new trending words might not overtake fascism this year.

Other insults and related words  including bigot, xenophobe, racism, and misogyny – all used in reference to President-elect Donald Trump during this election season – also climbed this year's list of most-searched terms, as The Christian Science Monitor reported after the elections.

Having these strongly negative terms define a year might not be such a bad thing, say observers. It could be viewed as a sign of engagement – of people being politically invested enough to seek out knowledge.

“People should look up fascism,” wrote Merriam-Webster staff in a Trend Watch article. “As with any other word in the dictionary, we want people to know what fascism means.”

If you want to know what it means but don't want to add to its look-up statistics, here's Merriam-Webster's definition: "a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition."

According to the dictionary's staff, words such as fascism and socialism are perennial favorites, but the former saw a spike of 450 percent in searches since last year. 

Pete Sokolowski, lexicographer of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, argued after the elections in a series of Tweets that interest in the words indicate curiosity, not ignorance, and that people may feel “responsible to know what it means.” As he told the Monitor in November, “the dictionary look-ups represent what people are thinking.”

But if a surge in look-ups signal increased curiosity instead of ignorance, as Mr. Sokolowski argues, it runs counter to the word that the England-based Oxford Dictionary chose as their Word of the Year: Post-truth, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

As the Monitor previously reported, a post-truth paradigm helps understand how emotional appeals influenced the Brexit vote in England and the election of Mr. Trump, even after critics have pointed out the candidate’s numerous factual errors and policy inconsistencies.

The term post-truth may ultimately point to a fundamental shift in how objective truth is interpreted in the 21st century. With the collective knowledge of human civilization at our fingertips through the internet, information is no longer the purview of an intellectual elite, as it has been throughout most of history. With this democratization of information, however, comes the problem of an oversaturation of information by anyone with an opinion on the facts to the point where it becomes harder to determine what is true and what is merely the product of someone's political agenda.

The Merriam-Webster word of the year depends on how often a word is searched in one particular year and in comparison to previous years. While fascism is popular, the company is still crunching data for this year and has not come to a conclusion about the word of the year yet. 

In the meantime, Merriam-Webster intended its plea as a relief for those tired of all the political talk of 2016, writing that “we need a break from fascism” in its article, followed by pictures of puppies and a post about the newly trending word flummadiddle.

A flummadiddle, by the way, is “something foolish or worthless.”

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