What could words like laurel, dog whistle, lodestar, and self-made possibly have in common? These words and others like them sent hundreds of thousands of folks to Dictionary.com in 2018, searching for answers.
Whether you were challenging your friends and family to declare themselves #TeamLaurel or #TeamYanny or playing armchair detective with the words in a cryptic New York Times op-ed, Dictionary.com was here to serve up pronunciations, parts of speech, and, of course, definitions to help you make sense of what was going on in the world this year.
Here are the words that caused the biggest search trends in 2018.
In January 2018, a Boston radio host learned you don’t mess with Tom Brady’s children. The Patriots quarterback abruptly ended a call with WEEI’s Kirk & Callahan Show after Alex Reimer called Brady’s 5-year-old daughter a pissant, sending searches for the insult up 24,443%. A pissant is “a person or thing of no value or consequence; a despicable person or thing.” Here at Dictionary.com, we label it vulgar slang.
A mysterious op-ed that appeared in the New York Times in September 2018 had folks playing detective and using Dictionary.com to help them along the way!
Written by an anonymous author claiming to be a member of the Trump administration, the op-ed told Americans that they were part of a resistance within the White House. With little more than the author’s words to use as clues, searches for the meaning of amorality—one of the more unique words used in the article—took off 50,519%. With the prefix a-, which means “not; without; opposite to,” amorality means “having no moral standards, restraints, or principles; unaware of or indifferent to questions of right or wrong.”
Amorality wasn’t the only word in that cryptic op-ed to send searches flying. Although it didn’t make the top 10 spikes in searches, lodestar climbed 16,395%. A lodestar is “something that serves as a guide or on which the attention is fixed.”
8. Stochastic terrorism
Stochastic terrorism is defined as “the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted.” The two-word term saw several spikes throughout 2018, as it was increasingly used on social media to describe physical attacks on journalists after negative comments were made about the media.
The phrase saw its highest trend—a jump of 51,567%—in late June, the day after professional provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos called for journalists to be “gunned down on sight.” That’s the day a gunman blasted his way into the offices of the Capital Gazette, a newspaper in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. The shooter took the lives of five newspaper staff members and injured two more, prompting many in the media and on Twitter to decry comments like Yiannopoulos’s and compare them to stochastic terrorism.
Ah, May. That time when flowers were blooming, the sun was shining, and Americans were caught in the clutches of a never-ending debate over whether they’d heard laurel or yanny. The audible version of the 2015 dress phenomenon offered a whole new reason to fight with your friends over something on the internet, and helped searches for laurel climb a whopping 59,324% at the height of the trend.
6. Con job
The Senate confirmation of now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh dominated headlines in the fall of 2018, and several words from the proceedings landed on the Dictionary.com trending word list.
But, it was a two-word phrase uttered by President Donald Trump in late September that saw the biggest leap in searches. Queries for the meaning of con job climbed 61,854% after Trump called sexual assault accusations against Kavanaugh “a con job.” The phrase means “an act or instance of duping or swindling.”
Cardi B has been everywhere in 2018, and that includes the Dictionary.com trending searches list. Her public feud with Nicki Minaj prompted an Instagram video posted by Cardi in October, in which the “I Like It” rapper dropped the word footages several times. Curious whether the word was real, searchers sent interest flying up 149,856%. Footages is indeed a real word, however it’s non-standard. The term footage is a mass noun which does not require the letter S to make it plural.
Allegations that President Trump had referred to Haiti and several African nations as “shithole countries” during a closed-door meeting kicked off the year with giant search trends. The word shithole saw a 236,500% leap in searches in early January. Labeled as American slang, the term means “a disgusting place.”
Dictionary.com played its own role in the 603,467% increase in searches for the meaning of self-made in July with a tweet that called into question Forbes Magazine’s usage of the word to describe Kylie Jenner as a self-made billionaire.
It’s no surprise that definitions matter here at Dictionary.com, and with that comes a belief that the words we choose to use in certain contexts are important. We define self-made as “having succeeded in life unaided.” Do you think it fits?
Self-made means having succeeded in life unaided.
— Dictionary.com (@Dictionarycom) July 11, 2018
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un fired a verbal shot at the United States in late May with complaints of US hegemonism. Searches for the word took off, topping out at a 894,000% increase, as thousands learned that hegemonism is “a practice of aggression or expansionism by large nations in an effort to achieve world domination.”
1. Dog whistle
Dog whistle took the top spot for biggest trend of the year in August, with searches flying up 1,667,250%. With Twitter abuzz over accusations that Florida gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis’ had used a racist slur in reference to competitor Andrew Gillum, Dictionary.com tweeted the meaning of dog whistle that week, shedding light on a new term for many Americans.
A dog whistle is defined as “a political strategy, statement, slogan, etc., that conveys a controversial, secondary message understood only by those who support the message.” When asked about his opponent, who is a man of color, during a Fox News interview, DeSantis said “The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.”
— Dictionary.com (@Dictionarycom) August 29, 2018
They may not have made the top 10, but there were plenty of other words making waves on Dictionary.com this year. Take a look at some of the runners up to the top slots:
- Comatose: News that rapper XXXTentacion was comatose after a shooting at a Florida motorcycle dealership helped propel worried fans to search for the meaning of the word. Searches were up 4,433%. Comatose means “affected with or characterized by coma.” The rapper later died of his injuries.
- Imbecilic: Former CIA Director John Brennan has taken several shots at the president this year, and his word choice has often been linked to trending word searches. The largest leap linked to Brennan came in July, when the Obama-era director referred to the president’s comments during a meeting with Vladimir Putin as “imbecilic.” The word shot to the top of searches with a 19,962% rise. The adjective means “contemptibly stupid, silly, or inappropriate.”
- Nationalist: What’s a nationalist? President Donald Trump labelled himself one at a rally in Houston in October, calling on Americans to “use that word.” The announcement prompted a 5,833% rise in searches for the meaning of nationalist. The word refers “to a person devoted to nationalism.”
- Concentration camp: American policy also spiked searches for the meaning of concentration camp in June, with a 1,093% jump. The leap coincided with comparisons of the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the United States/Mexico border and placing them in caged facilities to the sort of camps used by Nazis during World War II. Dictionary.com defines a concentration camp as “a guarded compound for the detention or imprisonment of aliens, members of ethnic minorities, political opponents, etc., especially any of the camps established by the Nazis prior to and during World War II for the confinement and persecution of prisoners.”
- Racketeering: Rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine’s November arrest on racketeering and weapons charges set off a flurry of searches for the meaning of racketeering. The noun saw a 18,090% hike in searches. It refers to “the practice of conducting or engaging in a racket, as extortion or bootlegging.”
- Feckless and c–t: Samantha Bee, host of TBS’s Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, dominated headlines in May after referring to the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, as a feckless c–t, sending searches for both words into the stratosphere on Dictionary.com. Feckless—an adjective that means “ineffective; incompetent; futile”—saw a 10,518% spike. Searches for c–t, meanwhile, were up 776%. The latter word is labeled as extremely disparaging or offensive and is considered a contemptuous term used to refer to a woman.
- Racist and Ambien: Roseanne Barr courted controversy in May with a late night tweet that said former Obama White House advisor Valerie Jarrett was a mix of the Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes, but the backlash didn’t end there. After being accused of racism for comparing a woman of color to an ape, Barr said she’d been tweeting while on Ambien. The result? Searches rocketed for the meaning of both racist and Ambien. At its peak, searches for racist were up 10,737%, while searches for Ambien climbed 508%.
New words that made a splash
Language is always evolving, and to keep up with it, Dictionary.com adds words every year. Hundreds were added this year, and some of them immediately filtered to the top of search demands:
- Big Dick Energy or BDE: Everyone from CNN’s Jake Tapper to SNL’s Pete Davidson was said to have “big dick energy” or the more work-friendly BDE this year.
- Yeet: This viral dance craze turned expression of excitement saw its biggest rise in September, after a video of University of Georgia Bulldogs yelling out “yeet” went viral.
- Boujee: Although the alternate spelling, bougie, was already on Dictionary.com, a rise in interest for this version of the word prompted its inclusion in our database. Clearly it was warranted, as demands remained steady in 2018 for this slang word for something “luxurious in lifestyle yet humble in character.”