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Why One Dictionary Made 'Complicit' Its Word Of The Year


Every year at this time, dictionary.com announces its word of the year. This year's options were pretty bleak.

JANE SOLOMON: There were a lot of really heavy words that people were looking up this year.


That's Jane Solomon, a lexicographer for dictionary.com. She says dossier, collusion and fury were some of the words the site's 80 million users looked up most frequently. But the winning word for 2017?

SOLOMON: Complicit.

MCEVERS: Complicit. Searchers for that word were up 300 percent this year from last year. But at three specific times searches skyrocketed.

SIEGEL: The first time was March 12, the same day "Saturday Night Live" aired a spoof perfume ad featuring Scarlett Johansson as Ivanka Trump. The fragrance was called Complicit.


SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Ivanka Trump) Complicit, the fragrance for the women who could stop all this but won't.

MCEVERS: The next time was April 5, the same day Ivanka Trump appeared on CBS and was asked if she felt she was complicit in White House activities.


IVANKA TRUMP: If being complicit is wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact, then I'm complicit.

MCEVERS: And then she said...


TRUMP: I don't know what it means to be complicit.

MCEVERS: Turns out a lot of people didn't know. Solomon says there was an 11,000 percent spike in searches for the definition after that interview aired.

SIEGEL: And we should note that this is the definition.

SOLOMON: Choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others.

SIEGEL: The third and final bump this year was on October 24. Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, long a critic of President Trump, stood in front of Congress. He announced that he would not be running for re-election. And he said this.


JEFF FLAKE: I have children and grandchildren to answer to. And so, Mr. President, I will not be complicit or silent.

MCEVERS: Jane Solomon says the word popped up in a lot of other places, too.

SOLOMON: Once we had this word in mind we started to see this word everywhere. We started to see the word complicit in so many stories.

MCEVERS: Like news stories about climate change, mass shootings, the opioid epidemic, sexual harassment and Russia's interference in the U.S. presidential elections.

SIEGEL: We wanted to know if that was true here. We took a look at our own news coverage on npr.org, and it turns out we used the word complicit nearly twice as often this year as compared to last.

(SOUNDBITE OF VASSAR CLEMENTS' "PERDIDO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.