Words of the year are a seasonal thing, and that season is now. As we await the #woty designation from the American Dialect Society, which, breathe, won’t be announced until early January, Merriam-Webster has revealed another much anticipated word-of-the-year designation: the dictionary website’s most looked-up words of 2012. The top two words, for which traffic “about doubled this year from the year before,” writes the AP’s Leanne Italie, are capitalism and socialism. Thank the election for making those two “kind of a no-brainer,” according to dictionary editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski. As he told the Atlantic Wire, “We follow word trends by watching which words rise to the top of the lookup list on an hourly, daily, weekly, and monthly basis.” Leaving out words that are looked up in large numbers every day of every year (ubiquitous, paradigm, affect, and effect, for example), “what we’re left with is a group of words that show spikes of interest that often correspond to current events: news, weather, sports, or entertainment. This is a quantitative measure of vocabulary curiosity.”
This year marks the first time a word duo has been chosen since Merriam-Webster began identifying the year’s most looked-up words back in 2003. Sokolowski says, “Sometimes the words don’t correlate to one specific story or a specific utterance by a newsmaker but instead are words that are part of the national conversation. That’s true of socialism and capitalism, words that trended together, indicating that people were frequently looking up both words in order to compare the definitions.” Socialism was looked up more frequently than was capitalism, “but since the trend pattern of capitalism so closely matches the moments when socialism was spiking, they form a natural pair [logically, lexically, and culturally]. Adding them together gives us a powerful example of how people actually use the dictionary,” he says. “Every time that health care is in the news, socialism spikes,” he adds. “Also, Mitt Romney used the phrase European-style socialism in his stump speech, keeping the word in the news for cycle after cycle.”
Following capitalism and socialism, top 10 words of the year (in no particular order, according to Sokolowski) included democracy, globalization, marriage, bigot, meme, touche, schadenfreude, and professionalism. Biden’s use of the word malarkey in his vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan didn’t make the top 10, but lookups “represented the largest spike of a single word on the website by percentage, at 3,000 percent, in a single 24-hour period this year,” writes Italie. Meme, too, spiked because of the debates (and politics and maybe also life in general), “pegged to political-related subjects that included Romney’s Big Bird and binders remarks, social media shares of images pegged to Hillary Clinton texting, and Obama’s ‘horses and bayonets’ debate rebuke of Romney in an exchange over the size of the Navy,” she explains.
Sokolowski says, “Schadenfreude is a favorite word among word lovers”—we’d agree—”It’s fun to say and a great example of the German compound noun (like kindergarten and another favorite: sprachgefuhl. But meme is a special word; it’s one of the few words in English about which all is known: who coined it, when, and why. Richard Dawkins wanted to have a noun for a unit of cultural information just as gene is a noun for a unit of biological information. He created a great word. But in 1976, he could never have imagined the speed with which cultural information is shared, so this word is absolutely a measure of the place of social media in our culture.”
Dawkins, 71, was reached by the AP for comment, and told Italie, “I’m very pleased that it’s one of the 10 words that got picked out … I hope it may bring more people to understand something about evolution.”
Word of the year time: It’s a good moment to remember that memes are not just about cat pictures and, um, malarkey.