This Year’s Word of the Year is ‘Complicit’ and There’s No Doubt about It

Every winter, Dictionary.com picks a Word of the Year, one which not only “embodies a major theme resonating deeply in the cultural consciousness over the past 12 months,” but also is reflected in the website’s lookup trends.

This year they have identified ‘Complicit’ as the word around which so much discussion, and argument, has pivoted. Defined simply, it means “Choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others”. This word implies at the least some moral, if not legal, responsibility for something, even if the involvement was indirect.

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Regardless of your political leanings, it’s not hard to find contentious acts where potential complicity provoked disagreement over the past year. Be it the secretive dealings of both US presidential candidates, alleged Russian involvement in various NATO member elections, historic sexual harassment and assault allegations being unearthed, as well as the sea of shady goings on as illuminated by the Panama and Paradise Paper leaks, there is plenty of public discussion as to who exactly is complicit and what that means legally.

Dictionary.com reports huge spikes in people looking up the definition of Complicit just after key moments in American politics over the past year. In fact, the top 3 instances can tell us a lot about the current political climate, as well as how people are using the word.

Saturday Night Live

On March 12th SNL aired a spoof ad with Scarlett Johansson playing Ivanka Trump, who was selling a perfume named Complicit. Taking direct aim at the President’s daughter, the tagline reads “The fragrance for the woman who could stop all this, but won’t.” This shot may have gone over some people’s heads though, as it led to a 10,000% spike in daily lookups.

Ivanka Trump Strikes Back

Less than one month later Ivanka Trump reignited controversy over the topic by offering a muddy redefinition of the word itself in an interview on This Morning on April 5th. After being challenged on her and her husband’s potential complicity, she replied: “If being complicit is wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact, then I’m complicit”. This evasive response led to the year’s greatest spike, seeing an 11,000% increase in people looking up the definition of Complicit. Those who discovered that the meaning remained decidedly negative were not likely to be surprised by her closing statement: “ I don’t know what it means to be complicit.”

Jeff Flake: A New Hope

The third biggest spike in daily lookups is also notable, despite being much smaller and later in the year than the other two. On October 24th Arizona Senator, and previous Trump supporter, Jeff Flake gave a speech announcing his retirement. In this speech Senator Flake expressed his “regret because of the coarseness of our leadership, regret for the compromise of our moral authority and by our complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.”

Clearly then, events and opinions surrounding the Trump Presidency have spurred people to use, and abuse, the word complicit much more than normal. It is not just the American presidency which has us discussing complicity, however, with wave after wave of high profile sexual misconduct accusations being levied at male elites in all industries. In each instance it is alleged that these men used their power and influence to silence or undermine accusers and that those around them either helped with the cover-ups or chose not to speak up. This has led to some serious societal soul searching, with many people echoing the sentiments of Senator Flake when he said “…silence can equal complicity”.

This year’s selection for Word of the Year is not just a dry presentation of search data by a website but also a pointed reminder that we are all responsible for our actions as well as our inactions. There are many reasons why someone may not oppose a perceived wrongdoing, fear and inability being obvious ones. It is nonetheless important to stop and take note of who we are and how we show that, as well as who we want to be and how we get there.

Tracing Dictionary.com’s Word of the Year choices in recent years paints a narrative of a turbulent social landscape, with Xenophobia and Identify being 2016 and 2015’s picks respectively. The big question remains, however, what will we do to ensure that 2018 is defined by a word which speaks of our virtues, something to be proud of?

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