Brave. Groundbreaking. Badass. Notorious: The year in culture

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(CNN)This year, what did nationalism, pansexual, maverick, respect and excelsior all have in common?

The short answer is that all of them appeared on Merriam-Webster's list of notable words of 2018.
The longer answer is that the words we look up and use to define or express ourselves tell the story of our lives, individually and as a country.
Several of these words tell the story of profound loss: "Maverick" spiked after the death of John McCain; "respect" following the passing of legendary Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin; "excelsior" in the wake of world-creator Stan Lee's departure.
    One of these words also tells a story of empowerment: Merriam-Webster said lookups for "pansexual" surged after Janelle Monae came out as such in a cover story for Rolling Stone. Language clearly matters to Monae, whose groundbreaking album "Dirty Computer" earned a Grammy nomination for album of the year, and whose body of work, wrote Kerra Bolton in May, uses "unique style to create a vocabulary and cultural conversation about what it means to be a black woman in the United States," forging in the process "the intersectional feminism of our times."
    Ultimately, Merriam-Webster's word of the year was "justice," a choice that, in combination with Dictionary.com's "misinformation" and Oxford Dictionary's "toxic," asserted historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, "certainly tell(s) a story about the state of public consciousness." Justice "took a hit" in 2018, Ben-Ghiat said, but she embraced "freedom ... to write and say what we think" as her own word of the year.
    In the young life of this column (and our newsletter, Provoke/Persuade), we've looked back each weekend at some of the strongest opinion of the preceding week. With a new year on the horizon, this week we're highlighting some of the top cultural criticism and social commentary of 2018. (You can also see our most popular CNN Opinion pieces here.)

    A year of "Becoming" a nation embracing politics and poetry

    If the words we look up tell our story in black and white, the books we read give that story color. In Electric Literature, Rebecca Makkai asked a question many could relate to: "The world's on fire. Can we still talk about books?"
    (Spoiler alert: Yes, and how!)
    Poet and critic Tess Taylor made room to read Emily Wilson's translation of "The Odyssey" with her son; she called it "the thrilling tale getting them through 2018."
    In a year when expressions of hate were horrifyingly relevant, "Educated," Tara Westover's account of growing up in and escaping from a survivalist childhood in Idaho, touched a nervy place of fascination with how extremist ideology operates. Slate's podcast, "Standoff," interviewed Westover as it revisited the 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge, still a flashpoint for many on the far right.
    "Becoming," first lady Michelle Obama's memoir, was the best-selling hardcover book of 2018. With a buzzy national tour punctuated by newsmaking disclosures (thinking "Bye Felicia!" as she left the White House), some were ready to dismiss the former FLOTUS (and her Balenciaga boots). But as both Kate Brower and Laura Beers articulated in November, Michelle Obama's candor on difficult topics -- marriage counseling and in vitro fertilization, respectively -- reflected a dynamic, enduring model of leadership. Michelle Obama herself touted the central importance of women's leadership on International Day of the Girl: "We're seeking to empower adolescent girls around the world through education, so that they can support their families, communities and countries."
    When it comes to books in 2018, it wasn't all about the here and now. Zora Neale Hurston's posthumously published "Barracoon: The Story of the Last 'Black Cargo,'" an account of the last survivor of the last slave ship written between 1928 and 1931, received wide acclaim. "Barracoon" was a big deal, observed scholar Ellen Gruber Garvey, because its story disrupts formulas of "white supremacist myth-making in action."
    In June, the National Endowment for the Arts found that the number of Americans who say they've read poetry in the past year was up for the first time since 1992. As poet laureate Tracy K. Smith, who launched a podcast called "The Slowdown" this fall, pointed out in The New York Times, reading poetry "has become a means of owning up to the complexity of our problems, of accepting the likelihood that even we the righteous might be implicated by or complicit in some facet of the very wrongs we decry."

    Brave. Groundbreaking. Badass. Notorious.

    For every #MeToo breakthrough, it seems women face two more setbacks. Or as Danielle Campoamor put it back in September, "Ariana Grande reminds us women have no safe place in America." Grande endured being groped by a pastor while performing at Aretha Franklin's funeral only to be eviscerated online after her ex-boyfriend died tragically.
    At the same time, as 2018 was drawing to a close, American women hit a historic benchmark with Martha McSally's appointment as an Arizona senator: in 2019, women will, for the first time, hold 25 Senate seats. This is a game changer, wrote Marianne Schnall, because it constitutes critical mass -- the tipping point where a group can transform an institution's culture.
    Anyone looking for a badass woman on screen in 2018 found one in Elizabeth Jennings on "The Americans." Played by the heavily nominated Keri Russell, Elizabeth upended conventions of gender and power on screen by making motherhood what I called "the ultimate disguise."
    Luckily for those who need a badass in real life, there's Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Julie Cohen and Betsy West, directors of acclaimed documentary "RBG," aren't surprised by the Notorious RBG's superhuman resilience amid health challenges: "During production of our documentary, we and our camerawoman were often exhausted trying to keep up with her -- whether at a law school speaking engagement, at the gym or at the opera. One night, after an especially grueling day of shooting, we were just eager to get some sleep. The justice let slip that she was going home to put the finishing touches on her latest dissent."
    And as Louise Knight explained, in the opening lines of "RBG," when Ginsburg says, "I ask no favor for my sex. ... All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks," she was quoting a 19th-century powerhouse, abolitionist and feminist Sarah Grimke -- who prophesied that one day a woman would sit in the seat of chief justice of the US Supreme Court.

    The revolution may not be televised, but in 2018 it was still happening on screen

    Even in the midst of a low point in American race relations, observed Gene Seymour, black storytelling on screen and on the page -- from "Black Panther" to "If Beale Street Could Talk" to electrifying debut fiction and poetry collections -- "showed a broad multiplicity of voices and made a deep impact on pop culture throughout 2018."
    Representations of race on screen weren't just a revolution unfolding in fictional worlds, as Isha Sesay and Peniel Joseph made clear. At the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May, Sesay argued, "we heard a civil rights protest song performed in the home of the British monarchy as the whole world watched. She invited a black pastor (the Rev. Michael Curry) to preach to the world the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. She walked herself to the man she has chosen to marry."
    Weeks later, as the French played for the World Cup title, the world watched as a team made up of primarily black and Muslim players lifted the trophy. For Joseph, the victory was a rare moment of optimism for the future of immigration, globalization, and citizenship.
    One of the most revolutionary acts on television this year was a moment of apology and compromise: Pete Davidson and Dan Crenshaw's joint plea for unity on "Saturday Night Live" after backlash against Davidson, whose father died on 9/11, for mocking Crenshaw, who has extensive war injuries.
    "It was a beautiful moment, unlike anything I can recall on "SNL" -- and I worked on the show's production staff for eight seasons," recalled Dean Obeidallah. "But the line that stayed with me the most was when he (Crenshaw) said, "We can remember what brings us together as a country and still see the good in each other."

    The year history took over the internet

    2018 was the year history went viral, opined Rebecca Onion for Slate, analyzing how historians used the Twitter thread to bring context and accuracy to the churning maw of the news cycle.
    It's true that #Twitterstorians took center stage this year, among them Manisha Sinha, who outlined what happened the last time a president chose America's enemies over its friends (hint: there's a lot more synergy going on between 2018 and Reconstruction than any of us should be comfortable with), and Nicole Hemmer, who lived through and reported on the protests in Charlottesville. Hemmer took to Twitter (and later CNN Opinion) in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre to show how its terrible seeds were planted in the too-often-overlooked anti-Semitism brought to the surface by the Unite The Right rally.
    When the internet went crazy over Mark Knight's cartoon of Serena Williams, immediately decried as racist, and Drake's dethroning of the Beatles with seven simultaneous Billboard Top 10 singles, Rebecca Wanzo and Jennifer Stoever were there to remind us why history matters. Wanzo debunked defenses of Knight by citing precedents of racist cartooning against black women going back to the 19th century, while Stoever called a halt in the "Drake vs. Beatles" battle and rejected the "rap vs. rock" cliché as "tired, race-baiting" "sonic misogyny."

    2018: The year of drama and disaster

      Looking back on our year in culture inevitably spotlights how hollow the distinction between the arenas of culture and politics has become. Simply put, 2018 was a year of drama and disaster, a swirl of chaos punctuated by works of art and criticism that were at times staggering, creative, provocative and surprising. To borrow from Einat Lev, whose commentary on the Kilauea Volcano was one of CNN Opinion's top reads of the year, I might apply this quotation to 2018 itself:
      "This event -- beautiful, destructive, frightening -- also presents a moment for all of us to appreciate the immense power of the forces that never cease shaping our planet."