It’s one of the oldest words in the English language. One that’s fundamental not just to our vocabulary but to who we are as humans. And yet it’s a word that continues to be a source of intense personal importance and societal debate. It’s a word that’s inseparable from the story of 2022.
Dictionary.com’s Word of the Year is woman.
|woman [ woom–uhn ]noun
1. an adult female person.
Why we chose woman as the 2022 Word of the Year
This year, searches for the word woman on Dictionary.com spiked significantly multiple times in relation to separate high-profile events, including the moment when a question about the very definition of the word was posed on the national stage.
Our selection of woman as our 2022 Word of the Year reflects how the intersection of gender, identity, and language dominates the current cultural conversation and shapes much of our work as a dictionary.
During the height of the lookups for woman on Dictionary.com in 2022, searches for the word increased more than 1,400% (a massive leap for such a common word). Subsequent spikes eventually resulted in double the typical annual search volume for the word.
The biggest search spike started at the end of March, during a confirmation hearing for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who in April became the first Black woman to be confirmed as a US Supreme Court justice. Specifically, the surge in lookups came after she was asked by Senator Marsha Blackburn to provide a definition for the word woman.
It was a rare case of not just a word in the spotlight, but a definition. We at Dictionary.com weren’t the only ones to take notice. The prominence of the question and the attention it received demonstrate how issues of transgender identity and rights are now frequently at the forefront of our national discourse. More than ever, we are all faced with questions about who gets to identify as a woman (or a man, or neither). The policies that these questions inform transcend the importance of any dictionary definition—they directly impact people’s lives.
Can you provide a definition for the word woman?
—Question posed by Senator Marsha Blackburn to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during her Supreme Court confirmation hearing in March 2022
In May, a leak revealed the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and lookups for woman surged again (along with significant increases in searches for related terms like autonomy). Further search spikes occurred again in June and July.
In June, the court formally issued its ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, officially overturning Roe. The historic decision was immediately considered—across the political spectrum—to be one of the most consequential in decades, socially and politically.
Unsurprisingly, it resulted in both polarization and galvanization. That dynamic played out in November’s midterm elections, which upended trends and expectations. The outcome has been attributed in part to an electorate, and particularly women, voting in reaction to the Dobbs ruling. The election also added to the ranks of the nation’s women governors, resulting in what will be a record number of women—12—serving as governors in 2023.
The etymology of “woman”
The meaning is actually embedded right there in the roots of the word. Woman comes from the Old English wīfman, which combines the words wīf and man. The Old English word wīf meant “female” or “woman,” and is the source of the word wife (which originally could refer to a woman regardless of marital status). The original meaning of man, meanwhile, was simply “person.” The first records of the word woman in English come from as early as the year 900.
Women were also prominent in several of 2022’s other key moments and the discourse around them:
- In September, the death of Queen Elizabeth II captured the world’s attention in a way that few other things do, prompting discussion and debate about the life and the legacy of the woman who became one of the world’s longest reigning monarchs. (Incidentally, the word queen derives from a word simply meaning “woman.”)
- In Iran, a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, died in the custody of the government’s so-called morality police, sparking outrage and a protest movement that has been primarily led by women, who are demanding greater freedom and autonomy.
- The year was full of notable stories in women’s sports, including superstar Serena Williams’ announcement that she will be “evolving away from tennis”; ongoing debates about transgender athletes; the equal pay settlement reached by the US Women’s National Soccer Team; and WNBA star Brittney Griner’s internationally condemned imprisonment by Russia and her subsequent release.
The utter variety of all these events is a reminder that one word can never sufficiently summarize or encapsulate an entire year, especially a year as relentlessly eventful, inflammatory, and inflationary as 2022. Nevertheless, 2022 will be remembered in part for its impact on women, and for women’s impact on a changing world. From our perspective as observers and recorders of language change, the word woman is a prime example of the many gender terms undergoing shifts in how and to whom they’re applied.
Our core work is making sure that the dictionary reflects how people use words in the real world. Our entries for woman and the inextricably linked word female do this by accounting for the many facets of such terms—biological, personal, and linguistic.
But the dictionary is not the last word on what defines a woman. The word belongs to each and every woman—however they define themselves.