‘Justice’ Is Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year

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Looking back on 2018, it seemed that most news stories, with the exception of sports and weather, dealt with some aspect of justice. It comes in many different forms too: racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, and more recently, environmental justice. It is no wonder that “justice” was named by Merriam-Webster.com as its top word of 2018.

The concept of justice has many interpretations — from legal and technical to philosophical, the dictionary site explains, and today’s news stories attempt to explain what those concepts mean in our society. As we enter 2019, we will all continue to grapple with what justice means for our lives.

Second on Webster’s list is ‘nationalism’, a word that President Trump used in a speech in October where he described himself as a ‘nationalist.’  Nationalism is defined as “loyalty and devotion to one nation, particularly exalting it above all others.” Nationalism is not to be confused with ‘patriotism,’ which is defined as “love and devotion to one’s country, but not putting it above all other countries.”

The third top word on the 2018 list is ‘pansexual’, a word that actress/singer Janelle Monae used in a Rolling Stone article to describe her sexual orientation and preferences. The prefix “pan” means “all” or “complete” so the word pansexual may be a useful alternative to bisexual.

Other words topping the list include:

* Lodestar – meaning one who serves as an inspiration, model or guide

* Epiphany – a sudden perception of essential meaning or an illuminating realization

* Feckless – ineffective or worthless. In a rarely used antonym, ‘feckful’ means efficient or effective

* Laurel – Did you hear the audio clip that went viral? Did the voice say ‘laurel’ or ‘yanny’?

* Pissant – Derogatory word used by a radio DJ described the daughter of Patriot’s quarterback Tom Brady

* Respect – A tribute to the late Aretha Franklin and her legendary song. It comes from the Latin word ‘respectus’, meaning “the act of looking back.”

* Maverick – An independent individual who doesn’t go along with a group or party. Often used to describe the late Senator John McCain.

* Excelsior – Stan Lee’s motto and salutation often concluded the monthly column he wrote for Marvel Comics. Comes from the Latin word meaning ‘higher’.

For more detailed explanations about these words and their origins, check out Merriam-Webster.com.

The top words were determined by the number of times they had been looked up on their site for meaning and clarification.

This annual list, as fun as it is, highlights why we still need to use a dictionary at times, to not only understand words and meanings, but how those meanings evolve over time and impact our conversations and our writing. It’s also a wonderful way to add to our vocabulary. Who knew there was such a word as ‘feckful’?

Last year about this time, after the 2017 list was revealed, I made my list of words for 2018. Among the words I listed were: backlash, harassment, impeach, bi-racial, isolationism, nuclear, resurgence, and bomb cyclone. I even made up a term, global cooling, to describe the cool reception the U.S. would receive after Trump decided to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

So what words do you think will be in the news in 2019 that will have you running to the nearest dictionary? I have a few in mind. Some are repeats from last year’s list, including ‘treason’ and ‘harassment’. In addition, look for the words ‘equity’, ‘collusion,’ ‘reform’ and ‘vortex’ to hit the news one way or another.

Merry Christmas!

Uncovering Fake News: Advice from a TV Journalist

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News stories are everywhere – on TV, the Internet, social media and good old-fashioned print newspapers and magazines. But how do you know whether the news stories you  read are true or fake?

In a program sponsored by the Chicago chapter of the League of Women Voters in late September that I attended, journalist Dorothy Tucker of the local CBS affiliate addressed these issues. Fake news, she said, is deliberate misinformation. Sometimes called “yellow journalism,” its roots can be traced back to pre-Civil War and slavery. During those days, newspaper cartoons often depicted slaves as content and at peace with their role in society, which was not true.

When immigrants began moving to America, they were portrayed in political cartoons negatively, often as ignorant and subservient, which was also not true. The intent in both these cases was to depict these minority groups in ways that gave the wrong impression to the public. These stories were the original “fake news.”

Fast forward to the 21st century. Facebook is the by far the biggest source of fake news. Tucker said an estimated 22 percent of news stories funneled through Facebook prior to the 2016 elections was fake news. These stores were planted by Russian agents with the intent to deliberately mislead the American public about the candidates. In some cases, pages were set up by and for non-existent groups to feed off people’s fears and create divisions within the public.

To complicate matters, there are more news outlets covering events today than ever before. Twenty years ago, there might have been only a handful of journalists covering a story, five or six at the most, Tucker said. Today, with the impact of the Internet and blogs, there may be 50 or 60 people covering a story. Not all of today’s bloggers and website owners have a background in journalism or understand basic journalistic standards and practices. They often report events without checking the facts.

It’s a crowded field, and with so many people vying for a chance to break a news story before the next person, the truth can get lost in the shuffle. And with so much news out there, how does an individual like you and me decipher what is real and what is fake, or gossip, or just plain wrong?

It is up to us, as individuals, to be more discerning about the stories we hear and see. We can’t assume what we read on the Internet is truthful, nor can we assume that what we hear in any news media is fake. Tucker outlined some things we can all do to check out a story.

1. Check out the media source or news outlet that ran the story. Do a Google search to see if news outlet exists. If so, what other stories has it published? Does the organization have a website? If so, check it out. Is there an About page? What does that page say about the organization? Is there an editor or editorial board? Is there a way to contact the news organization? If there is no About page, no information about the news organization and no ways to contact them, chances are they are a fake organization publishing fake news.

2. Check out the author of the story. Search Google to see if their name exists. Have they written other stories at other news outlets? Do they have a website? Check their bio on their website, and make sure there is a way to contact them. Most legitimate author sites will have this information.

3. Check the published date of the article as well as any photo or image that accompanies it. Check the source of the photo or image. It might have been “stolen” from another Internet site, often without the knowledge or consent of the person photographed. The photo or story might have been published a few years ago. Fake news outlets have been known to take a story from a few years before and embellish it for their purposes. If you can trace it back to the original story, then you found a fake news story.

4. Check the content of the news story against fact-checking services like Snopes.com, Poynter Fact-Checking Tips and Factcheck.org. Insert the URL of the story into the space provided and these services will scan the story to determine how much of the story is factual.

As we move forward into the mid-term election season, we all have to exercise better judgment and stronger awareness of news sources. We need to look at each news story with a keen eye and healthy dose of  skepticism about what is factual and what is fake. We all have to take greater responsibility for the news we share with others too, especially on social media sites. We may inadvertently be spreading fake news. Like the old adage, if it sounds too good (or ridiculous) to be true, it probably isn’t.

10 Words That Could Dominate the News in 2018

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Online dictionary Merriam-Webster recently shared their top words for 2017. Tops on their list: feminism, which the site selected because of its prominence in news stories throughout the year. Other words included on their list for 2017 were: complicit, recuse, gaffe, federalism, empathy, dotard, syzygy, gyro and hurricane. These words were noted because of a higher than usual percentage of look-ups in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary following references in news stories.

Seeing this list made me think of 2018. What words do you think will dominate the news media in the coming year?

I’ve come up with my own list, presented below in alphabetical order. Some have already been mentioned repeatedly in the news; others are likely to be popular in the coming months. It will be interesting to see if any of these words will make Merriam-Webster’s list a year from now.

Backlash – With social media, it’s all too easy to speak out in favor or against a person or issue. It’s also just as easy to receive backlash for those comments. In the past few years, celebrities and public servants have received backlash for bad attitudes, poor behavior and subpar performances, and that trend will likely continue in 2018. So “backlash” will continue to dominate news stories in the coming year.

Bi-racial – As the nuptials of Britain’s Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle take place this spring, we will no doubt hear more about Markle’s background and family. Markle is biracial, meaning her parents are of two different races. I believe her notoriety will bring to light what it means to be biracial in today’s society.

Bomb cyclone – Sounds intimidating, and for those who live along the Eastern coast of the United States, it was intimidating last week as a bomb cyclone blasted through the region. Bomb cyclone, also known as a weather bomb or explosive cyclogenesis, refers to a weather phenomenon when a low pressure system’s central pressure drops 25 millilbars in 24 hours or less. The conditions are ripe for an epic winter storm with snow and high winds followed by a significant drop in temperature. Popular Science has a nifty explanation of this term.

Global cooling – This is a term I devised to describe the cool response the U.S. has been receiving from its international allies. Since Donald Trump took office a year ago, the U.S. has seen a rash of unpopular policy reversals that have affected our relationships with foreign countries and our standing in the world, such as the Paris Climate Agreement. The result is a “global cooling” attitude toward the U.S., a trend that is likely to continue in 2018 and beyond.

Harassment – As more women come forward to share their stories of harassment in the workplace, the word ‘harassment’ will emerge as a top word in 2018. Harassment comes in many forms, and it isn’t always sexual; it can be verbal, physical and emotional too. And women aren’t always the victim; men can experience harassment too.  Workers will need to educate themselves about what constitutes harassment in the workplace, which is another reason why it will be one of the top words of 2018.

Impeach – There’s been a great deal of doubt surrounding the Trump presidency. As the year progresses, we will likely hear more about Trump’s business dealings with Russia, resulting in continued public outcries for impeachment.

Isolationism – In 2018, I think we will begin to hear more about isolationism, a term referring to national policies that avoid political and economic involvement with other countries. Isolationism has been a recurrent theme in U.S. history, most recently in the 1930s leading up to World War II. With President Trump’s talks of building a border wall along Mexico and the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, the U.S. may once again be moving toward isolationism.

Nuclear – As Trump’s cat-and-mouse game with North Korea heats up, a nuclear incident becomes a very real and scary reality. Discussions about nuclear policies will continue to be a heated debate in 2018, making “nuclear” a top word on my list.

Resurgence – According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, resurgence means “rising again into life, activity or prominence.” As the mid-term elections draw near, I believe we will see a resurgence of political and social interest by individuals and groups alike. More people who had never become politically or socially active will run for office or get more involved, and the results may be startling. Don’t be surprised if we see sweeping changes in the makeup of Congress at the midterm elections in November.

Treason – Much like the word “impeach,” expect to see the word “treason” in many news stories this year as more of President Trump’s political and business dealings are uncovered.

What do you think? Would any of these words make your top words of 2018? What words do you think will dominate the news in the coming year?

Tips for Finding Credible Sources via the Internet

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A woman I met in a writing class was working on a book project. She had never done anything like it before, so she didn’t know how to go about researching her topic. “How do I find good, credible sources of information on the Internet?” she wondered.

Good question. The Internet, for all its accessibility to the information highway, has been known to play host to some faulty, inaccurate data, enough so that it has been the brunt of jokes. The fact is you can’t assume that what you read on the Internet is true, accurate, trustworthy, or worthy of being shared.

But fortunately for many of us writers, there are plenty of credible sources. You just have to know where to look for them and how to vet them. Here’s a list of sites I regularly seek out to find a credible source to interview or do background research.

* Trade associations, which cover industry news. For example, the National Association of Realtors covers the housing market, while the American Hospital Association obviously covers news about hospitals. If you don’t already have a contact there, reach out to the media relations department who can put you in touch with the best expert for your project.

* Government agencies collect data and conduct research about everything from energy consumption to employment statistics. If you need data to back up your research, agencies like the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Trade Commission will be strong bets.

* Universities often produce studies or have think tanks on-site. Professors with special expertise in certain topics or who are involved in research studies are good candidates for sources.

* Book authors often have specialized expertise. Check Amazon or Barnes and Noble for recent releases. Note the name of the author(s) and check out their website, if they have one. If they’ve written a book or published an article, they’re experts and they’re worth interviewing.

* Magazine, newsletter and website editors cover the topics of the day. They understand the issues facing their industry and are usually open to offering their perspective.

* Quoted experts in news articles. As you read articles on your topic, note the experts who are quoted in the story. What company or industry do they represent? What expertise do they have? Follow up with them via their website or connect with them through social media. If they’ve done one interview, they are likely willing to talk to you.

* Think Tank organizations and other research firms, such as Pew Research Center provide massive amounts of studies and data, and their researchers are often quoted in news stories.

* Not-for-profit organizations and foundations, such as American Heart Association, can provide a unique perspective. For example, the director of a silent film group can provide a historical perspective to the passing of a well-loved actress.

For most writing projects, I usually begin by contacting the media relations department. Describe your writing project and be specific as you can about what information you need. They will usually direct you to the right expert. If they don’t have someone available, ask if they can refer someone else. But be patient. It may take a few hours or days for them to get back to you. If time is a factor, make sure you tell them that you are working on a deadline.

Once you’ve collected your sources, don’t set up interviews right away, unless you’ve talked with them previously and know them well enough to contact them. You need to be sure they are legitimate sources for your story.  A source that hasn’t been properly vetted can weaken an otherwise well-researched story.

If the information you find is too good to be true, or promises more than they can deliver, think twice before sharing it. Be sure to confirm the accuracy of one source by using a second, and possibly a third source.

Check the Better Business Bureau to determine if there are any complaints against the company or source. If there are, they may not be the best choice of expert to be interviewed.

Do a Google search of topics and individuals. You might be surprised what pops up. For example, enter HCG Diet in the search space, and the list will reveal both positive and negative reports, which suggest that the diet may not live up to the hype. On the other hand, by seeing both positive and negative responses, you may find sources who are willing to discuss opposing perspectives, which can make your story more well-rounded and credible.

In the long run, your story is only as good as the sources you use.

Six Words and Phrases That Should Be Used Sparingly

notepad-117597_1280Have you ever noticed the knee-jerk reactions people have when you use certain phrases or words?

It’s not that those words are offensive in and of themselves. But their meanings tend to conjure up connections in the brain that triggers an emotional response.

While we can’t completely avoid using these terms all the time, we can be mindful of how and when we use them, and the impact they can have. In some cases, those words can mean something different than what we intended.

I’ve compiled a list of “cautionary” words that can wreak havoc on meaningful conversations. There are more words, I’m sure, but this brief list should get you started thinking about the way we convey meaning in our everyday conversation with our word choices.

Compromise. 
At first glance, “compromise” seems like an innocent word. After all, people use it all the time in the act of negotiating. The problem stems from the implication that we must give up something in a compromise in order to get something else, which is counterproductive. Do compromises ever give you everything you want in the arrangement? Usually it means all parties involved are not getting something they want. Compromise doesn’t give you the results you ultimately seek, which is a win-win situation.

What if we switched out compromise in favor of collaboration? If we collaborate on a work arrangement, a deal, or a new song, a sense of equal partnership is implied. Even saying the word aloud – collaboration – has a different feel to it. It feels more inclusive than compromise. With collaboration, everybody wins.

Think how much more productive our members of Congress would be if they chose to collaborate on legislation rather than compromise?

Freelance. 
Some years ago, a young writer I met at a conference explained that she stopped referring to herself as a freelancer. “Whenever I told a client that I was a freelance writer, they tended to hear only the first half of the word and assumed my services were free.”

The woman made a good point. If you are starting out on your own and you identify yourself as a freelancer, are you unwittingly setting up an expectation among potential clients that your services are cheaper than other independent contractors?

A better option is “independent” or no descriptive term at all. Do you really need to identify yourself as an independent anything? In most cases, just saying, “I’m a business writer” or “I’m a photojournalist and graphic designer” are sufficient enough on their own to explain what you do without adding a “freelance” description.

Hate. 
I will write this once and never again: I hate the word “hate.” It’s such a strong, angry word that incites aggressive responses in people. I prefer the word “dislike,” which I suppose reflects my kinder, gentler approach to life.

I refuse to say or write that I hate another person, only that I dislike their opinions, dislike their attitude, or dislike the way they dress. Other comparable but less suggestive words: detest, loathe, abhor. Yes, they are as strong as hate, but they’re not nearly as hateful.

Diet. 
Another word that appears innocent enough at first glance, but can suggest negative meaning to some people because it makes them feel self-conscious, especially about their appearance. Diet, much like the word compromise, implies a loss of something or giving up something to get what you want. In this case, diet implies giving up certain types of foods that you enjoy in order to lose pounds. In fact, the word diet has almost become synonymous with “sacrifice.” Diet also implies a short-term solution to an eating problem.

The alternative phrases that I prefer are “eating habits” or “meal plan.” Rather than say, “I need to go on a diet,” which sounds negative and not enticing, instead say, “I plan to change my eating habits,” which is more positive and forward thinking.

No. 
Ever notice a person’s facial expression or physical reaction after you said no to their request? They sometimes look like they’ve been punched in the gut. No is one of those words that has an explosive effect, like a gun going off in the middle of the quiet evening.

While many times, saying no is necessary, there are ways to say no with less force and impact. For example, if your child asks for a snack before dinner, don’t just say no; instead, say “Yes, but after you’ve finished your dinner.” Or, to answer a worker’s request to leave work early, you can respond, “Yes, but please turn in your monthly reports before you leave.

I’m sorry. 
This has become one of the most overused phrases in business writing. Have you ever caught yourself writing to a client, “I’m sorry for getting back to your request so late.” It might sound sincere, but it also comes across as lacking confidence

In this instance, it might be better to use “thank you” to introduce the note. “Thank you for notifying me of your problem. Let me look into it and see how we can fix it for you.” This response sounds more positive and engaging without putting yourself down in the process.

Don’t get me wrong. Apologies are necessary if you are truly sorry about something that happened. But to continually use “I’m sorry” in business communications gives the impression that you lack confidence in yourself.

Whether used in personal discussions or in business communications, be aware of the words and phrases you use. Some can create negative feelings where none was intended.

Nine Easy Ways to Expand Your Vocabulary

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Whether you are a budding writer or a working professional in a non-communications role, your ability to communicate depends on an expansive vocabulary. As children and young adults, we learn new words at a fairly high rate. By the time kids reach age six, they know close to 13,000 words, according to Scholastic.com. Most native English-speaking adults have mastered 20,000 to 35,000 words, according to TestYourVocab.com. Sadly, vocabulary growth tends to slow down for most adults by the time they reach mid life.

When it comes to reading and writing, learning new words and broadening our scope of language and understanding can only serve to make our story telling skills even better. With each new word we learn, it’s only natural that we want to implement it right way into our everyday conversation, to display our newfound knowledge.

Whether you want to become a better writer or just want to impress your friends with your growing lexicon of language, here are a few easy tricks to expand your vocabulary.

1. Read, read, read. This is obvious. The more you read, the more you will absorb the writer’s meaning through language. And the more diverse your reading materials – from historical fiction novels and celebrity memoirs to newspapers and medical journals – the more expansive your vocabulary will become.

2. Play games and puzzles. Crosswords and other word puzzles are not only fun, but they help build your understanding of words. A site like TestYourVocab.com offers several self-tests and exercises to help you determine how expansive your vocabulary is.

3. Keep a dictionary and thesaurus at your side when you read. This is a no-brainer. These valuable tomes are your best friends whenever you read or write.

4. Read the dictionary. Yes, you read that right. Read the dictionary front to back as if you were reading a novel. A grade-school classmate of mine did that in seventh grade. While other kids in the class were throwing spit balls, my classmate sat quietly at his desk studying the dictionary. It did not surprise me to learn several years later that he earned a perfect high score on his ACT test.

Take a page or two a day and study each word on the page. Note how many of them are unfamiliar to you. Little by little, your vocabulary will grow.

5. Take a class on a topic unfamiliar to you. If you don’t have the time or patience to read a text book, taking a class might be the next best thing to help you build your vocabulary. For example, when I took a personal training certification class a few years ago, I was exposed to terms and phrases related to exercise physiology, nutrition and physical fitness, not part of my everyday language, but it did give me some additional exposure to words I never would have learned otherwise. If medical science isn’t your forte, try other topics, such as gardening, carpentry or cooking.

6. Keep a vocabulary log. Each time you come across a word that is unfamiliar to you, write it down in a journal. In the space next to it, look up the word in a dictionary and write down the definition. The practice of writing it down will help commit the information to your memory.

I just started doing this with the book I’m currently reading, where I have easily written down up to three or four new words per page. Now I wish I had started doing this practice a long time ago. I can only imagine how much more comprehensive my vocabulary would be now.

7. Talk to people. Have conversations. Every now and then, take your nose out of a book, laptop or iPhone and look around you. The next time you visit a coffee shop, strike up a conversation with people in line or sitting at a table by themselves. Listen to the way they speak. What words do they use?

8. Visit sites like Vocabulary.com, a free online learning platform that helps students, teachers and communicators build their vocabulary. The site offers online games and exercises as well as tools to help you build vocabulary lists. There are other online platforms and apps available for the same purpose. No matter which you decide to choose, they are designed to help you build your vocabulary in fun, interesting ways.

9. Start writing, and keep writing. The more you write, the better you become at writing and the more words you will learn to use along the way.

When you engage in any one, two or three of these techniques on a regular basis, you’ll see your vocabulary grow exponentially in a short matter of time.