What makes a word of the year? Merriam-Webster chooses their winner by tracking which terms people look up the most in their online dictionary over the course of the year. In 2015, the most noticeable increases in lookups happened across a whole cluster of words that shared something in common: They were all isms.
Editor Peter Sokolowski says that various events that got people talking also got them looking up isms. News about Bernie Sanders led to a 169 percent increase in lookups for socialism over the year before. People also got curious about communism and capitalism as points of comparison. Commentary on the rhetoric of Donald Trump led people to look for fascism. After the attacks in Paris, Colorado Springs, and San Bernardino, terrorism lookups saw an increase.
Lookups for racism spiked after the South Carolina church shooting and continued with news about police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement. Feminism lookups followed a story of an Ohio school blacking out the word feminist on a student’s T-shirt in a photo as well as discussions of Caitlyn Jenner, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Emma Watson’s UN speech.
As Sokolowski says, these words show how “we had very serious things on our minds this year.” People don’t look these words up because they have no idea what they mean, but because they are curious about events around them and want to know more. The dictionary doesn’t have all the answers people are looking for, but it is a “place where reflection can begin.”
Still, the news wasn’t all serious. One non ism that had a spike in lookups this year was all about cuteness and fun: minion.