Tra-la, it’s that magical, listicle end-time of year! ‘Tis the season for word aggregators to burnish their brand with lists of Top Ten Words. Dictionary.com’s word of the year is “identity.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s choice is a word for no-words: emoji. In its breathlessly anticipated announcement, Merriam-Webster confounded wordies everywhere with the word-ish “-ism”.
M-W’s ceremony is a no-frills event. No fanfare. No Barbara Walters. No Noam Chomsky making the early morning announcements. No reporters waking winners to get their reaction:
Groggy non-Adele voice answering transatlantic call:
“Is this –ism?”
“No. You have the wrong number.”
“This isn’t –ism?”
“No. This is gism.”
Merriam-Webster determines its Top Ten list by analyzing page hits, popular searches on its website, online polls and suggestions from site visitors. The M-Ws noted that in 2015 people went to the dictionary for the meaning of ‘socialism’ after Bernie Sanders’ presidential candidacy announcement; ‘terrorism’ after San Bernardino’s mass shooting; ‘facism’ after Kim Il Trump; ‘racism’ after police violence and Charleston, and ‘feminism’ after Caitlyn Jenner, Hillary Clinton and Amy Schumer news stories.
What they noticed in seven of the top 10 words looked up in 2015 were three little letters that kept appearing at the end of their users’ word searches: -ism. The M-W people boldly awarded the Word of the Year to one of the hardest working parts of speech: the suffix.
Speaking of hard-working, congratulations to Time’s 2015 Person of the Year, my shero, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Ism is sometimes a noun meaning a distinctive cause or theory that can be oppressive or discriminatory. Crossword puzzle makers love it. The old school crabbies at Scrabble don’t accept it. Or zen.
But generally -ism is a suffix, a part of speech added to a word to form a derivative. When you think suffix, think Whitney Houston, “I am nothing without you.” Then think of going to a co-dependency meeting. There are 1,233 English words ending in –ism.
Sidebar: the announcement caused a cascading shitstorm of errors. Several American citizens innocently looked up “-ism.” The facists at auto-correct changed “ism” to ISIS, an acronym that was everywhere this year. That cute hacker on Mr. Robot spotted it and notified Carrie from Homeland. She called Saul.
M-W’s editor-at-large, Peter Sokolowski said, “We’re looking at the news through the prism of vocabulary. A definition can be the beginning of reflection. This year, we’ve certainly had a lot on our minds.” His use of the word “prism” did not seem to reflect or even suggest that the LGBT rainbow was on his mind.
The three non-ism words on the M-W top 10 list were marriage, hypocrite and respect. What is marriage if the gays can do it now? Am I a hypocrite if I’m on the Family Research Council and the Ashley Madison site for cheating on my spouse? How can I be a racist yet still respect myself?
It has been a year of reflecting on our national identity. No single or several emojis can capture it. Too often the use of –ism allows a group-think, passive avoidance of responsibility. There is racism and there’s being racist and admitting when we are. Until we take that individual responsibility, to paraphrase a certain anonymous program, an -ism will never become a –wasm.
Kate Clinton is a longtime humorist.
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