Words of the Year: ‘surreal,’ ‘post-truth,’ ‘xenophobia’
December 19, 2016 12:01 PM
Surreal is Merriam-Webster's word of the year.
By Sean D. Hamill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It is not a coincidence that the three Words of the Year for 2016 announced so far by dictionary companies are politically fueled.
With a tumultuous, emotional year full of surprising elections and horrific terroristic actions, politics were the talk of much of the globe.
First, in November, “post-truth” was tagged as the Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries, followed a couple weeks later by Dictionary.com’s choice of “xenophobia,” and finally Monday the selection of “surreal” by Merriam-Webster.
“The thing that’s really interesting about all the dictionaries moving online is that you get to see not only the people out there on Merriam-Webster and the words they use, but others, too, and you see there is really this zeitgeist out there among people looking up words in common,” said Kory Stamper, an associate editor for Merriam-Webster.
That’s true even though the selection methods for the top words differed: Oxford searches common words in print to find out what was used a lot; Dictionary.com looks at the list of words that spiked in its online searches and chooses one that exemplifies the year; and Merriam-Webster says it looks at increases in online searchers year-over-year for words that have spiked.
Do they truly reflect something we all have in common in our language, though?
Scott Kiesling, professor at linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh, said it’s not clear.
“I don’t know if anyone has studied [the link between the various Word of the Year selections] but it’s certainly an interesting kind of thing to sociolinguists,” he said.
The fact that all three dictionary selections for Word of the Year — as well as multiple other contenders — are politically related “certainly suggests a connection between words and culture.”
“Surreal,” for example, was selected because it “is one people come back to over and over again in response to different events. And it gives us a look into 2016 according to what sent people to the dictionary,” said Merriam-Webster’s Editor-At-Large Peter Sokolowski, in an online video announcing the pick Monday.
Look-ups of the adjective, which Merriam-Webster defines as “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream,” had three major spikes this year: In March, after coverage of the Brussels terrorist attack; in July after the coup attempt in Turkey and terrorist attack in Nice; and then the largest spike following the U.S. elections in November.
Selection of the word allowed Merriam-Webster to avoid having to choose “fascism,” which spiked throughout the year following the Brexit vote in England, the rise of right-wing or populist candidates in several European nations and with coverage of Donald Trump’s campaign.
At one point at the end of November, Merriam-Webster said that “fascism” was the most searched word and encouraged people to look up something else so it would not remain on top.
In the end, fascism still had an incredible amount of look-ups, but it lost out to surreal because fascism was also searched for so many times last year, while surreal had a greater increase.
Ms. Stamper said it was not that surprising that surreal was searched so often this year.
“It always tends to spike after unfortunate and tragic events,” she said. “The biggest spike we ever had was after 9/11.”
What was so interesting about the word this year, she said, is that looking at the data, it appeared many people looked it up no matter what side of the election they were on.
Merriam-Webster began annually picking its Word of the Year in 2003, and while some words can now be expected to show a spike after certain events, there are still surprises, Ms. Stamper said.
Earlier Monday, she was talking to a colleague at Dictionary.com, and they noted that both dictionaries saw spikes in searches for “bigly,” after people thought that was the word that Donald Trump used during a debate when he actually said “big league.”
“And I told her, ‘What are the chances someone had ‘bigly’ in their office pool for Word of the Year?’ ” she said. “Not likely.”
There is still one more Word of the Year to come, this time from the American Dialect Society, whose members vote on it on Jan. 6 at their convention in Austin, Texas.
The society uses a much less data-based system than the three dictionaries, however. It takes nominations from anyone who wants to suggest a word, and then its members have a free-wheeling debate and then vote on a word at the convention, with an emphasis on a relatively new word, Mr. Kiesling said.
“I’ll be there for that,” he said. “It’s fun.”
If you’d like to nominate a word you can email it to email@example.com or suggest it on Twitter to @americandialect.
Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579 or Twitter: @SeanDHamill
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