Subscribe to Breaking News emails

You have successfully subscribed to the Breaking News email.

Subscribe today to be the first to to know about breaking news and special reports.

From carnage to covfefe, 2017 was an 'unpresidented' year for words

by Dartunorro Clark /
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump reads an executive order
U.S. President Donald Trump reads an executive order withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership prior to signing it in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on Jan. 23, 2017.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images file

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.

If you didn't know what a "dotard" was before September, you probably do now.

Merriam-Webster, the venerable dictionary with the sassy Twitter feed, saw searches for certain words spike alongside major news events, thanks in part to a dizzying year of political scandals, tweets, gaffes and feuds.

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, along with newsmakers like Anthony Scaramucci, among others, drove users to the dictionary's website en masse to look up words they knew or thought they knew — as well as the totally made-up.

NBC News spoke with lexicographer and Merriam-Webster editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski to round up only the best words made famous in 2017.

'Carnage' — January

Trump painted a dark picture of the country in his inaugural address.

"This American carnage stops right here and stops right now," he declared, a turn of phrase that raised eyebrows in the Beltway and beyond.

Searches for "carnage" on Merriam-Webster.com surged a staggering 21,540 percent.

"A word like carnage would not draw our attention," Sokolowski said. "The point being here is when a prominent person like a newsmaker, such as the president of the United States, uses language in a very particular way it suddenly seems more specific or slightly more real to a lot of people, so it drove a lot of traffic and people went to the dictionary."

The word also made a comeback later in the year when the New York Daily News used it to criticize the political inaction after the mass shooting in Las Vegas in October.

'Democracy'February

Image: The Washington Post
Front page of The Washington Post on December 15, 2017.NBC News

A month into Trump’s presidency, The Washington Post revealed its new slogan: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

On cue, Twitter erupted to mock the motto.

But others seem to have been inspired. The furor caused a large spike in searches for the word "democracy."

"Because these are words that describe ideas, they require a lot of definition and thought," Sokolowski said.

'Feminism/Feminist' — February

Image: Senate Republicans Hold News Conference On Tax Reform
White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway arrives at a news conference on tax reform Nov. 7, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

"Feminism" was Merriam-Webster's word of the year, and we have White House adviser Kellyanne Conway partly to thank.

According to Sokolowski, searches of the word spiked during key events times during the year, like the Women's March on Washington, but when Conway said in February that it was "difficult for me to call myself a feminist in the classic sense," it caused another surge.

With Conway using the phrase "in the classic sense," it put the definition of "feminism" in question and the word itself became the news, he said.

Overall, look-ups for "feminism" increased 70 percent in 2017 over 2016, according to Merriam-Webster.

'Recuse' — March

This word first spiked in January after Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former senator and a top adviser to Trump's campaign, announced he would recuse himself from any Justice Department investigation into Hillary Clinton.

Image: US-CONGRESS-JUSTICE-OVERSIGHT-politics
Attorney General Jeff Sessions arrives to testify before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Nov. 14.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

But according to Merriam-Webster, look-ups surged 56,550 percent in March when Sessions recused himself from the FBI's investigation into the Kremlin's interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, which includes whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

Sessions insisted that he had no improper contacts with the Russians, but nevertheless stepped aside from the probe because of his involvement in the Trump campaign.

'Complicit'April

Ivanka Trump, who serves as a top-level adviser in her father's administration, told CBS News in April that she didn't "know what it means to be complicit" in response to a question about her silence on the president's hard-line conservative approach to issues like immigration, LGBT rights, Planned Parenthood and climate change.

Image: Donald Trump kisses Ivanka at the G-20 in Hamburg.
Donald Trump kisses Ivanka in Hamburg.POOL / Reuters

"This is an invitation to the dictionary; it was very clear that she didn’t know what the word means," Sokolowski said. "The word itself was the story."

While Merriam-Webster saw a 1,200 percent spike in look-ups, "complicit" was Dictionary.com's Word of the Year. "Saturday Night Live," meanwhile, took aim at the first daughter with a perfume commercial parody.

'Svengali' — April

Steve Bannon, the ousted White House chief strategist who sees himself as the torchbearer of the political movement that elected Trump president, has been called many things.

But it was an April editorial in The New York Times calling him a "Svengali" that caused the word to jump to the top spot in look-ups, with a 2,805 percent increase, Sokolowski said.

Merriam-Webster defines the word as “a person who manipulates or exerts excessive control over another" — a term that "probably isn’t in everybody's word bag," Sokolowski said, explaining the increased search traffic.

Image: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's chief strategist, arrives in the East Room as the president and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of Italy hold a joint news conference.
Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's former chief strategist, arrives in the East Room at the White House on April 20.Doug Mills / The New York Times via Redux Pictures

Searches spiked again in August when The Washington Post reported that Bannon would be leaving the White House, billing him as Trump's "Svengali."

'Covfefe' — May

Throughout the year, Trump used Twitter to tout his agenda, promote Fox News segments and blast reporting he didn't like as "Fake News."

The prolific tweeter also had a few high-profile typos and misspellings — like unpresidented, heel and council when he meant unprecedented, heal and counsel — that drove Americans to the dictionary.

image: Trump Twitter
The Twitter page for Donald J. TrumpNBC News

Still, nothing roused the internet like "covfefe." In May, the president typed out the beginning of a typical lament — "Despite the constant negative press covfefe” — and hit send around midnight.

The tweet was up for hours before it was deleted, but it went on to become an international joke.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who has since resigned, tried to clean up the gaffe by saying it wasn't a mistake or a misspelling, but was only understood by a close group of the president's advisers. Trump issued another tweet indicating that he was in on the joke.

'Scaramouch' — July

Image: Scaramucci speaks to the press about firing White House aides
Anthony Scaramucci speaks to reporters about firing White House aides to stop leaks to the press outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, DC on July 25, 2017. Scaramucci also spoke about Trump's increasingly testy relationship with Attorney General Jeff Sessions.Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA file

Anthony Scaramucci was the White House communications director for six days, but he made a big splash entering and exiting the White House.

The ex-Wall Street hedge fund manager and top Republican fundraiser, known as "The Mooch," stirred a 16,721 percent increase in look-ups to the word "Scaramouch," which is a stock character in an Italian comedy and also means "a cowardly buffoon," according to the dictionary.

'Dotard' — September

Image: Donald Trump. Kim Jong Un
A passerby takes a look at a television screen showing President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a train station in Seoul, South Korea, on Aug. 10.Ahn Young-joon / AP

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and Trump spent the summer escalating a war of words amid increased nuclear tensions between the two countries. After Trump gave a controversial speech to the United Nations in September in which he threatened to "totally destroy" North Korea and called Kim "rocket man," a reference to his country's recent missile tests, Kim hit back.

The North Korean strongman prompted head-scratching and a staggering number of dictionary look-ups when he called Trump a "mentally deranged dotard."

What is a Dotard?

Sep.22.201700:40

Few people knew what it meant, and Merriam-Webster saw a 35,000 percent spike in look-ups after Kim's statement.

"Basically we're getting a vocabulary lesson for the nation as a consequence of the news," Sokolowski said. "I can only assume it was an unusual translation, an obsolete translation."

"It brought a huge amount of focus on one tiny little word," he added.

'Moron' — October

Image: Rex Tillerson
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives for the first meeting of the National Space Council first meeting at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center on Oct. 5, 2017 in Chantilly, Va.Andrew Harnik / AP

NBC News reported in October that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on the verge of resigning over the summer, at one point referring to the president as a “moron" in his frustration.

Thanks to the news, look-ups for the insult surged by 6,033 percent, according to Merriam-Webster.

Tillerson later publicly refused to say if he had, in fact, called the president a moron.

'Indictment' and 'Collusion' — October

Image: Former Trump campaign officials charged in Russia investigation
Paul Manafort leaves the federal courthouse on October 30, 2017 in Washington.Tasos Katopodis / EPA

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his longtime business associate Rick Gates were indicted by a federal grand jury on 12 charges, including conspiracy against the U.S., in October as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

The news prompted massive look-ups for the words "indictment" (943 percent) and "collusion" (2,198 percent), Sokolowski said.

'Blowhard' — November

Image: George Bush senior hospitalized with breathing difficulties
Former US President George H.W. Bush in his office in Houston, Texas, on March 29, 2012. LARRY W. SMITH / EPA

Former President George H.W. Bush, whose son Jeb ran against Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, did not mince words when it came to Trump in November.

"He's a blowhard," Bush told historian Mark K. Updegrove for his book "The Last Republicans," according to CNN.

The report made searches for "blowhard" spike more than 90,000 percent, according to Merriam-Webster.

The dictionary's definition? "Braggart" or "windbag."

'Surrogacy' — December

Image: Rep. Trent Franks
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., takes his seat as he arrives for the House Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Dec. 7, 2017.Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Searches for "surrogacy" surged in December after news broke that Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., had asked female staffers about carrying his child. He offered one former staffer $5 million to act as a surrogate for him and his wife, according to an associate of the former staffer.

Franks then announced he was leaving Congress, but not before look-ups of "surrogacy" rose 6,200 percent, according to Merriam-Webster.

"The important lesson of this year is, words do matter and that people are paying attention," Sokolowski said, "and we know that from our data."

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
MORE FROM news