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The 11 Words That Defined 2019

What sent people straight to their trusty online dictionaries this year? These telling words that are mostly derived from politics, crime, and pop culture.

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Over 200 different words and word-forms on magnetic tiles with 2019 written over the imageTHPStock/Shutterstock

More than words

Once again, the Merriam-Webster team has compiled a list of the top Words of the Year. And 2019’s Word of the Year is…[drum roll, please]…they. Yes, the very basic word they, though its definition has expanded as of late. It is now also being used as a singular pronoun instead of he or she for a nonbinary individual, or someone who doesn’t identify as strictly male or female. This use of they was also added to in September. Speaking of which, this is how words get added to the dictionary.

So, how did the folks at Mirriam-Webster decide on this as the defining word of 2019? The Word of the Year must have been a top lookup at in the past year, and it must have seen a notable rise in lookups over the previous year. The same goes for the other words on the list, which also typically reflect political and cultural changes in our society. Here are more of the words that shaped 2019 for us.

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President Donald Trump departs the White House for Palm Beach, FL where he will be spending the Christmas holiday, Friday, December 22, 2017Michael Candelori/Shutterstock

Quid pro quo

The literal translation of this phrase is “something for something.” The term has been all over the news since President Donald Trump has been accused of withholding congressionally approved aide to Ukraine unless the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, agreed to announce the launch of an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden. Of course, people wanted to know what this Latin phrase meant, but there’s more to it than that. “The search popularity of this phrase indicates that people want to understand what’s really true,” says Shel Horowitz, author of Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World. What is the “something” that’s wanted in response to “something” else? That was the question, in particular, on September 25th, October 17th and 18th, and November 20th, when searches for this term spiked on the dictionary site, resulting in a 644 percent increase over last year.

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Washington DC Capitol dome detail with waving american flagAndrea Izzotti/Shutterstock


And we’re back to Donald Trump, who has been the subject of impeachment proceedings this year; just recently, the House of Representative voted to impeach him. “Since [impeachment proceedings were] only used three times previously since the founding of the Republic, voters…want to know exactly what it means,” says Horowitz. They also want to know the details, including “when it may be invoked, what the consequences are, and perhaps what the Founders had in mind when they wrote it into the Constitution.” But even when they know the basic definition, these are 13 things people often get wrong about impeachment.

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A crawdad being held in someone's hand with the green of the lake as the background.MelaniWright/Shutterstock


This word experienced a lookup spike when Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens hit the New York Times Best Sellers list. It’s a nickname for a crawfish—a little lobster-like delicacy that’s popular in the South. “The fact that this word made the list is a testament to Southern slang being alive and well,” says Jen Susca, former culture writer for Sommet Dame Magazine. Here are some slang words no one outside your state will understand. But depending on what happens in the world over the next few months, maybe they’ll make the list next year!

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North Charleston, SC / USA - Dec 16 2016: Boeing 737 Max test vehicle visit North Charleston SCMarco Menezes/Shutterstock


A Boeing pilot used this word to describe an issue with 737 MAX planes, which were involved in several fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019. It’s a more elegant and damning vocabulary choice than using the term “very, very bad.” It’s “a word so heavy with negative connotations [that it] seems the only appropriate way to convey the anguish of disasters, such as the Boeing 737 MAX planes,” says Susca. While egregious has had a home in the dictionary for many years, these 25 brand-new words were added to the dictionary in 2019.

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Cyntoia Brown Long. Cynthia Brown-Long poses in Nashville, Tenn. For nearly half of her life, Brown-Long was locked up. At 16, she was arrested for robbing and killing a man she says picked her up for sex and later sentenced to life in prison. But two months ago, Brown-Long, 31, walked out of a Tennessee prison after successfully petitioning the Tennessee governor for her clemency. She's now speaking for herself in her memoir, "Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System," released Tuesday, Oct. 15 20 Sep 2019Mark Humphrey/AP/Shutterstock


Lookups spiked a whopping 9,900 percent after the governor of Tennessee granted clemency (an act or instance of mercy, compassion, or forgiveness) to Cyntoia Brown, a woman who had been convicted of murdering a man when she was a 16-year-old victim of sex trafficking. “The word represents the extraordinary healing power inherent in forgiveness,” says Paul L. Hokemeyer, PhD, author of Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough. “It also represents our human capacity to see things in shades of gray rather than in polarizing black and white.” Check out these 15 fascinating facts about dictionaries that will make you want to pick one up.

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COLUMBUS, OH/USA - OCTOBER 21, 2017: University Hall on the campus of The Ohio State University.Ken Wolter/Shutterstock


We use it so much, but do we really know what it means? This 500 percent lookup spike was prompted by The Ohio State University filing a trademark application for the word the with the U.S. Patent Office. The goal was to protect new branding logos that emphasize that “The” is part of the official name of the institution. It “inadvertently reaffirmed the importance of even the most elementary of words,” says Susca. Believe it or not, these 16 words you use every day are trademarked.

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Attorney General William Barr adjusts his glasses while speaking to the National Association of Attorneys General, in Washington 10 Dec 2019Jacquelyn Martin/AP/Shutterstock


It really is a word, and it means “disagreeably ill-tempered.” But everyone needed confirmation when Attorney General William Barr used the word to describe a letter sent to him by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The letter was critical of Barr’s summary of the Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election. The use of the word has been viewed as indicative of a political climate that is moving further away from formalities, says Susca. If snitty makes you chuckle, check out the 13 funniest words added to the dictionary in the last decade.

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United States Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican of South Carolina) listens as Michael Horowitz, Inspector General at the U.S. Department Of Justice, testifies on his report regarding alleged abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act during a United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary hearing 11 Dec 2019Shutterstock


This word experienced a lookup increase of 39,000 percent in January after it was used by Washington Post columnist George Will to describe Senator Lindsey Graham’s behavior. Its technical definition? “Evasion of straightforward action or clear-cut statement,” or “desertion of a cause, position, party, or faith.” Susca sees this lookup increase as an indication of the public’s desire to stay up-to-date on news and terminology, which will only continue into 2020. While tergiversation is a real word, these 9 fake words actually ended up in the dictionary.

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Lady Gaga at the Met Gala 6 May 2019David Fisher/Shutterstock


No, not as in “summer” or “Girl Scout” or “sleepaway.” The term was used at a gala event celebrating “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The result was a gathering of celebrity attendees who wore outfits reflecting “a style or mode of personal or creative expression that is absurdly exaggerated and often fuses elements of high and popular culture” or “something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate, or out-of-date as to be considered amusing.” Considering the fact that this is one of the few words on the list that wasn’t derived from politics, tragedy, or crime, this word shows our hunger for lightness and laughter, says Hokemeyer.

Just because a word is in the dictionary now, by the way, it doesn’t mean it’ll stay there. Check out these 13 words from the first dictionary that no longer exist.

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Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Intelligence Committee during a much-anticipated hearing about Russian interference into the 2016 election, and possible efforts by President Trump to obstruct Mueller's investigation, in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, USA, 24 July 2019. The former FBI director and author of the Mueller Report will face lawmakers for five hours in back to back hearings. 24 Jul 2019SHAWN THEW/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock


It means “to clear from alleged fault or guilt,” and it landed on the list thanks to Robert Mueller, who used it during testimony before members of the House of Representatives in reference to President Trump: “The President was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed.” And its place on this list goes beyond people simply searching for its literal definition. “This word is indicative of the intense political climate we are living in,” says Susca, “and the rapt attention being paid to every twist and turn in the news.” Next, see if you know these 33 middle school vocabulary words that adults still get wrong.

Dana Robinson
Dana Robinson is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who regularly covers health, beauty, culture, and food for Reader's Digest as well as,, Wine Enthusiast, AARP, and Southwest: The Magazine. She earned an MA in Mass Communication from California State University, Northridge.