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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

The words of 2018 make up a toxic brew

Merriam-Webster says 'justice' was 2018's most often looked

Merriam-Webster says 'justice' was 2018's most often looked up word. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

How do you begin to describe this year?

That’s the challenge lexicographers face each time they select a word of the year. Even a year as crazy as this one. And they nailed it.

Oxford Dictionaries, the most esteemed anointer, chose “toxic” for 2018. It was an inspired selection, far better than 2017’s lamentable “youthquake.”

In 2018, we had toxic algae off Florida’s coast, toxic smoke from the Camp Fire in California, and toxic waste leaching in the Carolinas after Hurricane Florence. All sorts of stuff buried on Long Island was toxic, as was the nerve agent the Russians used to try to kill a former spy in England.

“Toxic” has a rather long trend-tail, winding back to the 1990s with toxic debt and real-life “Sex and the City” author Candace Bushnell’s toxic bachelors. In 2018, we explored and deplored toxic masculinity, toxic relationships, the toxic environment on college campuses and our toxic political culture.

Germs, chemicals and pollution always have been toxic. Now social media is, too; one story asked whether Facebook had become too toxic to touch.

Here’s what 2018 was like — one of Oxford’s runners-up was “gaslighting,” the use of psychological means to manipulate someone into accepting a false depiction of reality or questioning their own sanity. Synonym: trumping.

Oxford says it tries to reflect the year’s “ethos, mood, or preoccupations.” At Merriam-Webster, it’s more of a statistical thing. Which words were looked up most often?

M-W picked “justice.” Not a bad choice, either. Justice loomed large all year, most notably as special counsel Robert Mueller dispensed justice to a whole bunch of President Donald Trump’s associates.

There was lots of talk about racial justice, environmental justice, poetic justice, criminal justice, and Justice with a capital J, as in Brett Kavanaugh’s title, as in whether justice prevailed in his Supreme Court confirmation.

But why did so many more people look up the definition of justice this year as compared to 2017? Yes, there are different forms of justice for different people, sometimes inexplicable, often unfair, but did they really not understand the general sense of the word? It’s not like “pansexual” or “pissant,” two other words in M-W’s top 10 of lexicographic curiosity in 2018.

Dictionary.com went with “misinformation.” Bull’s-eye! Trump, after all, made the bulk of his 7,546 false or misleading claims as president in 2018, according to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker.

But I must quibble. What about “disinformation”? More than simply false information, disinformation is “deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative facts; propaganda.” Given that the full scope of Russia’s ongoing campaign to influence our elections came into focus this year, and Trump was Trump, “disinformation” would have been a better choice.

Some events blended the terms, as when Fox News host Tucker Carlson said immigration makes our country “poorer and dirtier” and at least 25 companies pulled their advertising from his program — an episode of toxic justice.

As for me, our family’s Christmas Eve celebration looms. I hope I do the turkey justice and the eggnog isn’t toxic.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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