Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year 2019 is “they” based on lookups driven by events in the news which increased by 313% in 2019 over the previous year.
“They” was followed by Quid Pro Quo, Impeach, Crawdad, Egregious, Clemency, The, Snitty, Tergiversation, Camp, and Exculpate.
“They” rose to the top in 2019 due to the word’s use as a gender-neutral singular pronoun for individuals who identify themselves as gender-nonconforming and/or transgender.
Quid Pro Quo
The investigation into President Trump’s phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky became something of a vocabulary lesson for many Americans, and the term quid pro quo was heard countless times from newscasters, pundits, politicians, and the president himself.
Major spikes of lookups occurred on September 25th, October 17th and 18th, and November 20th, for a year-over-year increase of 644%.
Merriam-Webster defines quid pro quo as “something given or received for something else,” and “a deal arranging a quid pro quo.” The literal translation from New Latin is “something for something.”
It’s no surprise that impeach is among the top words of 2019, with the largest single spike following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement of an impeachment inquiry on September 24th. Overall, the word had a 129% increase in lookups over last year.
Impeach is defined in several ways, including “to charge with a crime or misdemeanor” and “to cast doubt on.”
Delia Owens, the first-time novelist whose Where the Crawdads Sing made it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, was interviewed on CBS Sunday Morning, sending crawdad to the top of searches with a spike of 1,200%.
In October, egregious became a top lookup, increasing 450%, when reports surfaced that a Boeing pilot had used the word in describing an issue with 737 MAX planes.
Egregious means “conspicuously bad” in modern English, but that meaning strays a bit from its original one.
Lookups for clemency spiked 9,900% in January, after the governor of Tennessee granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown, a woman serving a life sentence, having been convicted of murdering a man when she was a 16-year-old victim of sex trafficking.
Clemency means both “willingness or ability to moderate the severity of punishment (such as a sentence)” and “an act or instance of mercy, compassion, or forgiveness.”
The Ohio State University filed a trademark application in August for the word “the” with the U.S. Patent Office, in order to protect new branding logos that emphasize the “The” that is part of the official (some say pretentious) name of the institution—and the spiked 500%.
Snitty flew to the top of the dictionary lookups in May, increasing by 150,000%, when Attorney General William Barr used the word to describe a letter sent to him by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Snitty is defined by Merriam-Webster as “disagreeably ill-tempered.”
Tergiversation was our top lookup on January 24th—up 39,000%—after the word’s use in an article by Washington Post columnist George Will the previous day.
Tergiversation can mean “evasion of straightforward action or clear-cut statement,” or “desertion of a cause, position, party, or faith.”
In May, camp was the belle of the dictionary ball for a time, with lookups shooting up 5,800%.
Access to the dictionary entry for the term was easier to come by than access to what inspired the lookups: a gala event celebrating “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” the newly-opened fashion exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
When Robert Mueller used the word exculpate in his July testimony before members of the House of Representatives—”The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed”—the word saw a dramatic increase in lookups, spiking 23,000%.
The word exculpate is defined as “to clear from alleged fault or guilt.” It traces back to Latin culpa, meaning “blame,” also the source of culpable, which means “meriting condemnation or blame especially as wrong or harmful.”