Dictionary’s word of the year sums up ‘surreal’ 2016
Was 2016 a dream or a nightmare?
Try something in between: “surreal”, which is MerriamWebster’s word of the year, unveiled on 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 yearover-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”, 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.
There were also smaller spikes, including after the death of Prince in April at age 57 and after the June shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
Other words on the list include “bigly”, “deplorable” and “irregardless”.
“Surreal” didn’t exist as a word until around 1924, after a group of European poets and painters 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.
Plenty of spikes
Merriam-Webster first started tracking lookup trends in 1996, when the dictionary landed online. In 2001, after the Sept 11 terror attacks, the Springfield, Massachusettsbased 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, after Robin Williams’ suicide,” 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 of 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.”