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Word of the Year

December 24, 2018
Milt Policzer

By Milt Policzer

Courthouse News columnist; racehorse owner and breeder; one of those guys who always got picked last.

I don’t want to cast aspersions — but I’m going to. I think “justice” cheated. I know that sounds counterintuitive but the evidence is clear. As you may have heard, the word “justice” was pronounced Word of the Year by Merriam-Webster, the dictionary company. Among other things, this prompted the American Bar Association to tweet: “We approve. It's been our word of the year for the last 140 years.”


Try looking up “American Bar Association Word of the Year” in your favorite search engine. There’s no mention of a Word of the Year before last week. The ABA just jumped on the bandwagon.

Be that as it may, the Merriam-Webster victory by “justice” is tainted. The dictionary company even admits it: It says the reason so many people looked up justice (aside from astonishing ignorance) was because the “Department of Justice” and Brett Kavanaugh, a potential “Supreme Court Justice,” were in the news.

How is that fair? They’re not looking up a word — they’re looking up a word that happens to be in names of things.

Why isn’t Beyonce the Word of the Year? Or Trump?

I suppose the answer is that no one was looking them up on a dictionary website. This, naturally, presents us with other issues. The title here is “Word of the Year.” Should the criterion for that honor simply be that people didn’t know what it meant? To me, the honor should go to the word most used or at least most search-engined — not to a word so obscure that millions of people needed to look up its definition.

And even if you agree that the word most-looked-up deserves some sort of honor, can you determine that by website statistics? People do have paper dictionaries on their shelves or holding up table legs. All the votes have not been counted.

There’s also a more significant and troubling issue: Why would you need to look up the definition of justice? Are there millions of people who don’t know what the word means? Could they be saying: “I thought I knew what justice meant, but then I watched the news …?”

Justice can seem pretty hard to come by — so maybe it’s because we’ve misunderstood the concept.

Other candidates. It seems to me that a lot of other words should have been in contention for Word of Year (not based on definition-seeking). I have few candidates.

Beer. If Brett Kavanaugh brought notice to justice, consider how much more notice he brought to beer. And he said it a lot. Add to that the popularity of craft beer and you’ve got a strong Word of the Year candidate.

We like beer.

Resign. I don’t think this requires any explanation.

Collusion. Ditto.

Fire! It’s flames, it’s job loss, it’s shooting, it’s Becky Lynch. (Google that last one with “straight” if you don’t understand.) It’s flexible, has multiple meanings, and Google comes up with 3,540,000,000 results. What more do you want in a Word of the Year nominee?

Recession. This word made a strong showing late in the year but might be a better candidate next year. Happy New Year!

Favorite sentence of the week: “Honking can be expressive conduct.”

No, this isn’t from a dissertation about geese. It’s from a 26-page federal ruling called Porter v. Gore, on the fascinating issue of whether a horn honk can be protected by the First Amendment.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but the ruling also contains this wonderful sentence: “Defendants cannot very well turn around and argue that the State, through regulation, has ‘intentionally’ opened up a special channel of communication just for honking discourse.”

I’ve always wanted to engage in honking discourse.

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