Mer­riam-Web­ster sums up 2016 in one word: Sur­real

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY LEANNE ITALIE

NEW YORK | Was 2016 a dream or a night­mare?

Try some­thing in be­tween: “sur­real,” which is Mer­ri­amWeb­ster’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, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.

Irony mixed with the sur­real for yet an­other bump af­ter the March death of Garry Shandling. His first sit­com, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” pre­miered on Show­time in 1986 and had him bust­ing through the fourth wall, speak­ing di­rectly to the au­di­ence and mim­ick­ing his real life as a stand-up co­me­dian, but one who knew he was star­ring in a TV show.

“It was sur­real and it’s con­nected to the ac­tual orig­i­nal mean­ing of sur­real, which is to say it comes from Sur­re­al­ism, the artis­tic move­ment of the early 20th cen­tury,” Mr. Sokolowski said.

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 Mr. 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 ter­ror­ism 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, Mr. 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.”

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, Mr. Sokolowski said. It made its way into the col­lec­tive mind thanks to Mr. 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.

Icon: This spike came af­ter Prince’s April 21 death, along with sur­real.

As­sump­sit: At the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion, Sen. 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,” Mr. Sokolowski said with a laugh.

For the record: It’s a le­gal term with Latin roots for a type of im­plied prom­ise or con­tract. Mr. Kennedy didn’t de­fine it when he told the story.

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