Was 2016 a dream or a nightmare?
Try something in between: “surreal,” which is Merriam-Webster’s word of the year, unveiled Monday.
Meaning “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream,” or “unbelievable, fantastic,” the word joins Oxford’s “post-truth” and Dictionary.com’s “xenophobia” as the year’s top choices.
“It just seems like one of those years,” said Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor at large.
The company tracks year-over-year growth and spikes in lookups of words on its website to come up with the top choice. This time around, there were many periods of interest in “surreal” throughout the year, often in the aftermath of tragedy, Sokolowski said.
Major spikes came after the Brussels attack in March and again in July, after the Bastille Day massacre in Nice and the attempted coup in Turkey. All three received huge attention around the globe and had many in the media reaching for “surreal” to describe both the physical scenes and the “mental landscapes,” Sokolowski said.
The single biggest spike in lookups came in November, he said, specifically Nov. 9, the day Donald Trump went from candidate to president-elect.
Which is to say that “surreal” didn’t exist as a word until around 1924, after a group of European poets, painters and filmmakers founded a movement they called Surrealism. They sought to access the truths of the unconscious mind by breaking down rational thought.
It wasn’t until 1937 that “surreal” began to exist on its own, said Sokolowski, who is a lexicographer.
Merriam-Webster first started tracking lookup trends in 1996, when the dictionary landed online. In 2001, after the 9/11 terror attacks, the Springfield, Massachusetts-based company noticed plenty of spikes in word lookups. The most enduring spike was for “surreal,” pointing to a broader meaning and greater usage, Sokolowski said.
“We noticed the same thing after the Newtown shootings, after the Boston Marathon bombings, ………,” he said. “Surreal has become this sort of word that people seek in moments of great shock and tragedy.”
Word folk like Sokolowski can’t pinpoint exactly why people look words up online, but they know it’s not only to check spellings or definitions. Right after 9/11, words that included “rubble” and “triage” spiked, he said. A couple days after that, more political words took over in relation to the tragedy, including “jingoism” and “terrorism.”
“But then we finally hit ‘surreal,’ so we had a concrete response, a political response and finally a philosophical response,” Sokolowski said. “That’s what connects all these tragic events.”
Other words that made Merriam-Webster’s Top 10 for 2016 due to significant spikes in lookups:
BIGLY: Yes, it’s a word but a rare and sometimes archaic form of “big,” dating to around 1400, Sokolowski said. It made its way into the collective mind thanks to Trump, who was fond of using “big league” as an adverb but making it sound like bigly.
DEPLORABLE: Thank you, Hillary Clinton and your basket full of, though it’s not technically a noun.
IRREGARDLESS: It’s considered a “nonstandard” word for regardless. It’s best avoided, Sokolowski said. Irregardless was used during the broadcast of a baseball game and its use was pilloried on social media, he said.
ASSUMPSIT: At the Democratic National Convention, Elizabeth Warren was introduced by one her former law students at Harvard, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts. He described how on his first day she asked him for the definition of assumpsit and he didn’t know.
“She said, ‘Mr. Kennedy do you own a dictionary?’ so everybody looked it up,” Sokolowski laughed.
For the record: It’s a legal term with Latin roots for a type of implied promise or contract. Kennedy didn’t define it when he told the story.
FAUTE DE MIEUX: Literally, this French phrase means “lack of something better or more desirable.” Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg used it in a brief concurring opinion in June to support a ruling that struck down a Texas law that would have closed all but nine abortion clinics in the state.
IN OMNIA PARATUS: A Latin phrase for “ready for all things.”
FECKLESS: It’s how Vice President-elect Mike Pence described President Obama’s foreign policy when he debated Democrat Tim Kaine. It means weak or worthless.