Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali in 1965 with Babou, the ocelot

Credit: Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection

Merriam-Webster: In A Word, 2016 Has Been 'Surreal'

December 21, 2016

If you had to sum up a year like 2016 in a single word, could you do it? Well, it helps if you are a dictionary company like Springfield-based Merriam-Webster. To be fair, their word of the year is part of a whole top 10 list, which was released this week.

These days the dictionary is as much an interactive online tool as it is a dusty reference tome on the shelf. And it turns out, when a word captures the public’s attention, the folks at Merriam-Webster see that reflected, in real time, in traffic to their website. The biggest spikes tend to be driven by single, high profile events whether that be the World Series or, say, the presidential campaign. It is those spikes in traffic that launch a word onto their annual top 10 list, explained Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster.

"We're looking for many, many lookups by many, many people for the same word," he said. But there is another factor, and that is year-over-year increase. Sokolowski said certain words, like "integrity, pragmatic, ubiquitous, and love," are looked up in huge numbers every year.

"We want to see a word that tells us something about 2016," Sokolowski said. "A word that was not looked up as frequently in 2015."

Sokolowski said that unlike most of the words on the list, there was one word that spiked multiple times, following multiple events in 2016.

"And that was the word surreal, our word of the year for 2016," he said. "And the definition of surreal is 'marked by the intense, irrational reality of a dream.' And that's a great definition." 

It was no surprise to Sokolowski and his team that it spiked in March after terrorist attacks in Brussels, and over the summer, around the attempted coup and Turkey and the tragic events in Nice, France. 

"We’ve seen this word associated with tragedies like the Newtown shootings, the Boston Marathon bombings for sure, and, for example, the suicide of Robin Williams," he explained.

But Sokolowski said he was surprised that it was a different kind of event that drove “surreal” to the top of the list in 2016.

The biggest spike of all was Nov. 8 through Nov. 10—“That is, to say, the American Presidential election", he said. "So we have associated it with shock following tragic events, but clearly, it's also associated with surprise and shock for other events, too."

Hear more about the etymology of the word "surreal," and why people are looking it up in droves:

igly: “The most looked up word never uttered,” according to Sokolowski, bigly spiked after Donald Trump said he was going to cut taxes "big league" during one of the Presidential debates. Sokolowski notes that people may have heard "big league" as "bigly" since Trump used the phrase to modify a verb, and we typically expect adverbs to end in "ly." For the record bigly is a word, though Sokolowski said it is arcane and rarely used. 

Deplorable: As in, “A basket of…”, the flash point phrase uttered by Hilary Clinton in September. Sokolowski notes that Clinton used it as a noun, pluralizing it. For the record, Merriam–Webster only lists “deplorable” as an adjective.

Irregardless: A Twitter debate broke out about whether this is even a word after Joe Buck uttered it during the World Series broadcast. Sokolowski says they list it in the dictionary because it has found its way into print repeatedly over the past century. “The fact is it is a word, it’s just a word we recommend you don’t use,” he said. Sokowski noted that “we’re all judged by our language,” and this is a word that when used, “you will clearly be judged by.”

Icon: Lookups spiked dramatically after the death of pop icon Prince in the spring. Sokolowski said they saw a smaller spike in lookups for the same word after the death of David Bowie in January, but there was another term people looked up more frequently following the passing of the Thin White Duke: "Androgynous."

Assumpsit: This one has a Bay State connection. When Massachusetts Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III introduced his former Harvard Law School professor, Senator Elizabeth Warren, at the Democratic National Convention he shared an anecdote. On his first day of law school, Kennedy was asked by Warren to recite the definition of the word "assumpsit." Kennedy didn't have an answer, noting he circled it in his reading because he didn't know what it meant. According to Kennedy, Warren fired back, "Do you own a dictionary? That’s what people use when they don’t know a word.” Assumpsit is a legal term for "an express or implied promise or contract, the breach of which may be grounds for a lawsuit."

Faute de Mieux: A French phrase meaning “lack of something better or more desirable.” It spiked in June when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg used it as the Court overturned a Texas law requiring abortion clinics to have surgical facilities and doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

In omnia paratus: It’s a Gilmore Girls thing, a Latin phrase that means, "ready for all things." If you didn’t already know, a reboot of the acclaimed, early-2000s TV series launched on Netflix this year.

Revenant: The Leonardo DiCaprio film earned three Oscars – and a whole bunch of online lookups. For the record it means, “one that returns after death or a long absence.”

Feckless: During the Vice Presidential debate in October, Mike Pence repeatedly referred to President Obama's leadership as "weak and feckless." That sent plenty to the dictionary where, if they didn't already know, they learned that it means "weak, ineffective, worthless, irresponsible."

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