Posted on December 19, 2016

Word of the Year 2016: for Merriam-Webster, ‘Surreal’ Trumps ‘Fascism’

Martin Pengelly, The Guardian, December 19, 2016

Merriam-Webster has succeeded in its attempt to stop “fascism” being named its word of the year: the dictionary publisher’s word of 2016 is “surreal”.

“Spikes of interest in a word are usually triggered by a single event,” said Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster. “So what’s truly remarkable this year about ‘surreal’ is that so many different stories led people to look it up.

“Historically, ‘surreal’ has been one of the words most searched after tragedy, most notably in the days following 9/11. But it was associated with a wide variety of stories this year.”

Merriam-Webster determines the popularity of words in terms of increases in look-ups in total volume and year on year.

2016 has been seen as a year of unusually bad news around the world, including a terrorist attack in Nice, an attempted coup in Turkey and the deaths of beloved figures such as David BowiePrinceLeonard Cohen and the astronaut John Glenn.

Merriam-Webster, however, said the biggest spike in look-ups for “surreal” came after Donald Trump’s presidential election win in November.

The surge in look-ups of “fascism” in 2016 was also fuelled by the rise of Trump, as well as Britain’s “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union and other rightwing populist victories or movements, such as that of Marine Le Pen in France.

Last month, Merriam-Webster used its Twitter feed to suggest users look up alternatives to “fascism”, proffering the word “flummadiddle” – meaning, according to its own definition, “something foolish or worthless” – as a possible alternative.

In 2015, Merriam-Webster’s most looked-up word was “socialism”, thanks to the rise of Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont who went on to lose the Democratic presidential primary to Hillary Clinton.

However, with searches for “fascism” also surging as Trump campaigned for the Republican nomination, the publisher made “ism” its word of the year, the first time the honour had gone to a suffix.

Announcing “surreal” as the 2016 word of the year, Kory Stamper, associate editor at Merriam-Webster, said: “Events often have specific words tied to them, and it’s always fascinating to see which of those words people latch on to.

“You can get a sense as to how people are responding to an event by the words that are looked up again and again.”

Other surging words in 2016 included “bigly”, a word associated with Trump but, according to Merriam-Webster, less often used by the president-elect than the phrase “big league”.

In September, Clinton used the phrase “basket of deplorables” to describe some of Trump’s supporters, a gaffe that was seized upon by Trump and used as a badge of honour by some of his followers.

“‘Deplorable’ is defined as an adjective but Clinton’s unfamiliar use of the word as a noun may have sent people to the dictionary for clarification,” the publisher said.

Other publishers have recognised other political words. Oxford Dictionaries made “post-truth” its word of the year; went for “xenophobia”; Collins gave its honour to “Brexit”.

“Alt-right” and “Trumpism” featured strongly in many such surveys.

Away from politics, Merriam-Webster said, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar-winning role fuelled a rise in searches for the word “revenant”, while the death of Prince boosted look-ups for “icon”.

The return of the TV series Gilmore Girls, the publisher said, prompted searches for the Latin motto “‘in omnia paratus’, which means ‘ready for all things’”.