Dic­tionary’s word of the year sums up ‘sur­real’ 2016

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD - By AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS in New York

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.”

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