Dictionary.com Announces Its Word of the Year—and It Could Not Be More Relevant

Searches for this particular word increased 300% over last year. 

Dictionary.com has just put out its Word of the Year, which it believes crystallizes the spirit of 2017. The website describes it as, “a symbol of the year’s most meaningful events and lookup trends.” The word for this year is complicit, defined as: “choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others; having partnership or involvement in wrongdoing.”

Lexicographer Jane Solomon told The Guardian that searches for the word on the site increased some 300% overall from 2016. In recent times, complicit has become linked to the Russian interference in last year’s U.S. presidential election and the subsequent investigation, and implies collusion among those in the Trump campaign. But that wasn’t the only reason. Other events upped the search for this word including a pharmaceutical company’s involvement in the opioid epidemic and, most recently, the sexual harassment scandals plaguing Washington and Hollywood, among other places.

Although the website wouldn’t disclose the exact number of clicks—Dictionary.com considers that information proprietary—it did say that searches for this particular word rose 10,000% on March 12 alone. That was after a Saturday Night Live sketch aired starring Scarlet Johansson as Ivanka Trump. It parodied a perfume commercial. The scent’s name? “Complicit.”

Watch the sketch here:

Credit: Saturday Night Live, via YouTube.

Ivanka Trump appeared on CBS This Morning three weeks after the sketch aired. “If being complicit is wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact, then I’m complicit,” she said to Gayle King on CBS“I don't know what it means to be complicit, but I hope time will prove I have done a good job and that my father's administration is the success I know it will be.” Dictionary.com seems to be using the Word of the Year announcement to call attention to those who speak out against powerful people and institutions, and those who choose stay silent. The website commends Colin Kaepernick, the approx. five million people who attended the Women's March worldwide, and those speaking out against sexual misconduct.

On October 24, several months after Ivanka Trump's interview with Gayle King, the word popped up again when Senator Jeff Flake (R-FL) announced his retirement. During his speech he said, “I have children and grandchildren to answer to, and so, Mr. President, I will not be complicit.” One of Flake’s sons is currently locked in a lawsuit against controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was recently pardoned by President Trump. Arpaio is accused of bringing a faulty criminal suit against Senator Flake in order to damage his reputation.

The word wormed its way into other important occurrences. Clashes between white nationalist protesters around the country and counter-protesters, and Trump’s reaction to them—particularly his insistence in the aftermath of the Charlottesville incident, which left one woman dead, that there were “some very fine people on both sides,”—had pundits questioning whether the president was somehow himself complicit.

His statement after clashes in Charlottesville, VA have had some this year wondering whether Pres. Trump was in some way complicit. Credit: Getty Images.

Then there’s climate change and the government’s complicity in its denial. There was the US pullout from the Paris Climate Agreement. EPA Secretary Pruitt continually refuses to admit humans contribute to climate change. And several government websites were also wiped clean of global warming information.  

Complicity has, in addition, been a term used to help us comprehend the sheer number of sexual harassment scandals now coming to light, mostly of women victimized by men in positions of power. Accused perpetrators include film producer Harvey Weinstein, Senator Al Franken (D-MN), actor Kevin Spacey, and US Senate candidate for Alabama Roy Moore (R). These incidents were all pushed under the rug for years. In each, victims were in some way silenced.

So how does Dictionary.com choose its word of the year? Mainly by looking at searches and when they occurred and cross-referencing that with noteworthy events that happened that year. Politics was the big focus this year. Like many of its competitors, Dictionary.com doesn’t necessarily select the word that’s most highly searched, though it often does. Instead, it looks for a word which embodies the zeitgeist of that particular year.

The website’s 2016 word of the year was xenophobia, mostly due to the Syrian refugee crisis. Oxford Dictionary deemed “post-truth” the international word of that year. It saw an increase in searches for it shoot up 2000%. The Oxford Dictionary defines post-truth as, “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

For an explainer for Merriam-Webster’s 2016 pick, click here:

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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