Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion and a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University who writes about authoritarianism and propaganda. Follow her @ruthbenghiat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
“Justice,” “toxic” and “misinformation”: These are the 2018 “words of the year,” according to Merriam-Webster, the Oxford Dictionary and Dictionary.com, respectively. What do these words say about the state of our culture? They certainly tell a story about the state of public consciousness. To put it another way (and to use all the top words in one sentence): Many people want justice from the damages wrought by toxic leaders and their misinformation campaigns.
These annual “awards” are based largely on the number of lookups, which in turn reflects the prominence of certain terms in the news, in social media and in educational curricula. It’s no surprise that of two of three top words (toxic and misinformation) are negative terms. During this past year, investigative journalists, citizen whistleblowers, prosecutors, advocacy groups and others have revealed a world of abuses of power, cover-ups, intents to deceive and corrupt leadership that extends from the White House to federal agencies to giant media companies to corporations and universities. The #MeToo movement, sharpened by the outcry against the elevation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, has also prompted many discussions of “toxic masculinity” in the public sphere.
Interest in words such as justice and misinformation reflect this new awareness and critique of the workings of power. It has contributed to a shift in public mood also manifested in activism and historic levels of participation in midterm elections that brought unprecedented numbers of women into office. As Merriam-Webster said in a statement explaining its choice, “The concept of justice was at the center of many of our national debates in the past year: racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, economic justice.”
Justice, a word that was seemingly a neutral or positive for many, has taken a hit in 2018, though. Merriam-Webster’s definition of justice includes “the quality of being just, impartial, or fair” and “conformity to truth, fact, or reason.” Yet there can be no consensus on the definition of justice when the meaning and status of “truth, fact, or reason” is contested, thanks to President Donald Trump’s attempts to convince Americans that what they see with their own eyes is not true and the truths they read are really “fake news.”
What, indeed, is justice in 2018, when Trump’s lawyer Rudolph Giuliani, a former US attorney, associate attorney general and a mayor who championed “broken windows” policing against those accused of petty crimes, states that even if the President did obstruct justice, violate campaign finance laws and conspire with Russia to influence the 2016 elections, they were not “big crimes” since “nobody got killed, nobody got robbed. …” It’s not surprising in this environment that Merriam-Webster saw searches for the meaning of justice surge 74% from 2017 to 2018.
Tracking word usage and popularity among millions may be the job of linguists, but individuals, too, can benefit from knowing how their favored words change from year to year. Tools such as @tweetcloudbot, which can give users a word cloud of their most-used terms, can enlighten Twitter users on the subject. Some of my 2018 results were not unexpected, given my areas of expertise – “authoritarian,” “media,” “Putin,” “leader,” and, of course, “Trump” – but I was also pleased to see my word cloud displaying “thank” so prominently.
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We may feel bruised from 2018’s political battles, but we can still feel gratitude that we are still very much a democracy with full liberty of expression. In the repressive states of the leaders Trump admires, using the wrong words can land you in prison. In America, we have the freedom – my own word of the year – to write and say what we think.