2017 is year of 'feminism,' says dictionary

This may or may not come as a surprise: Merriam-Webster's word of the year for 2017 is "feminism."

This may or may not come as a surprise: Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2017 is “feminism.”

Yes, it has been a big year for the word. This year, searches for “feminism” on Merriam-Webster.com rose 70 percent from last year and surged several times after key events, said lexicographer Peter Sokolowski. He is the company’s editor at large.

There was the Women’s March on Washington in January, along with sister rallies around the world. 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 Donald Trump, who had boasted about grabbing women.

The “Me Too” movement rose out of Harvey Weinstein’s downfall, and other “silence breakers” brought down rich and famous men of the media, politics and entertainment industries.

Feminism has been in Merriam-Webster’s annual Top 10 for the past few years, including sharing word-of-the-year honors with other “isms” in 2015. Socialism, fascism, racism, communism, capitalism and terrorism rounded out the group. Surreal was the word of the year last year.

“The word feminism was being used in a kind of general way,” said Sokolowski. “The feminism of this big protest, 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.”

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 is not all that old in the history of English.

“It was a very new word at that time,” said Sokolowski. “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.” 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,” said Sokolowski.

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.”

Another surge for the word feminism this year occurred in February, after Kellyanne Conway, a senior aide of President Donald Trump, spoke at the Conservative Political Action Committee.

“It’s difficult for me to call myself a feminist in the classic sense because it seems to be very anti-male and it certainly seems to be very pro-abortion. I’m neither anti-male or pro-abortion,” she said. “There’s an individual feminism, if you will, that you make your own choices. I look at myself as a product of my choices, not a victim of my circumstances. And to me, that’s what conservative feminism is all about.”

She was applauded, and she sent many people to their dictionaries, Sokolowski said. The company would not release actual numbers of searches.

Other events that drew interest to the word feminism was the popular television series, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and the “Wonder Woman” movie directed by Patty Jenkins, Sokolowski said.

Merriam-Webster had nine runners-up.

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