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'Feminism' is Merriam-Webster's word of the year

Merriam-Webster has revealed "feminism" as its word of 2017.

Lookups for the word in 2017 increased 70% over the previous year on dictionary's website

'Feminism,' Merriam-Webster's word of 2017, has its roots in the Latin for 'woman' and the word 'female,' which dates to 14th-century English (Peter Morgan/Associated Press)

Merriam-Webster has revealed "feminism" as its word of the year.

In 2017, lookups for feminism increased 70 per cent over 2016 on Merriam-Webster.com and spiked several times after key events, lexicographer Peter Sokolowski, the company's editor at large, told The Associated Press ahead of Tuesday's annual word reveal.

There was the worldwide women's march in January. And heading into the year was Democrat Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and references linking her to white-clad suffragettes, along with her loss to President Donald Trump, who once boasted about grabbing women. 

Canada, of course, has a self-declared feminist as its prime minister.

Other events that drew interest to the word feminism was the popular TV series  The Handmaid's Tale and the blockbuster movie  Wonder Woman, directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, Sokolowski said.

The #MeToo movement rose out of fallen movie mogul Harvey Weinstein's dust, and other "silence breakers" brought down rich and famous men of media, politics and the entertainment worlds. 

Feminism has been in Merriam-Webster's annual Top 10 for the past few years, including sharing word-of-the-year honours with other "isms" in 2015: socialism, fascism, racism, communism, capitalism and terrorism rounding out the bunch. "Surreal" was the word of the year last year. 

"The word 'feminism' was being used in a kind of general way — the feminism of this big protest," Sokolowski said by phone from the company's headquarters in Springfield, Mass. "But it was also used in a kind of specific way: What does it mean to be a feminist in 2017? Those kinds of questions are the kinds of things, I think, that send people to the dictionary." 

1st reference in 1841

Feminism's roots are in the Latin for "woman" and the word "female," which dates to 14th-century English. Sokolowski had to look no further than his company's founder, Noah Webster, for the first dictionary reference, in 1841, which isn't all that old in the history of English. 

"It was a very new word at that time," Sokolowski said. "His definition is not the definition that you and I would understand today. His definition was 'The qualities of females' — so basically feminism to Noah Webster meant femaleness.

"We do see evidence that the word was used in the 19th century in a medical sense, for the physical characteristics of a developing teenager, before it was used as a political term, if you will." 

Webster added the word in revisions to his An American Dictionary of the English Language. They were his last. He died in 1843. He also added the word "terrorism" that year. 

"We had no idea he was the original dictionary source of feminism. We don't have a lot of evidence of what he was looking at," Sokolowski said. 

Today, Merriam-Webster defines feminism as the "theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes" and
"organized activities on behalf of women's rights and interests." 

The company would not release actual lookup numbers.

Some of the runners-up:

  • Complicit, competitor Dictionary.com's word of the year.
  • Empathy, which hung high all year.
  • Dotard, used by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to describe Trump.
  • Syzygy, the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies, such as the sun, moon and Earth during a solar or lunar eclipse.
  • Hurricane, which Sokolowski suspects is because people are confused about wind speed.
  • Gaffe, such as what happened at the Academy Awards when the wrong best picture winner was announced last year.