Merriam-Webster announced Monday that “surreal” is its top Word of the Year for 2016.
The American publishing company best known for its popular dictionaries said the decision was based on two simple criteria: The word has a “high volume of lookups” and a “significant year-over-year increase in lookups” on Merriam-Webster.com.
Peter Sokolowski, the editor at large for Merriam-Webster, told Yahoo News that these are the criteria, because many of the most looked-up words are actually the same every year.
“When we look at year-over-year growth, we see really interesting things about what’s new and different about 2016,” Sokolowski said.
Merriam-Webster, which has been announcing a Word of the Year since 2003, defines “surreal” as “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream” and pointed to the way its use in news coverage was followed by spikes in lookups: the terrorist attacks in Brussels in March, as well as the coup attempt in Turkey and the terrorist attack in Nice in July.
But the largest spike in searches occurred after the U.S. presidential election in November, when the businessman and former reality TV star Donald Trump defeated the heavily favored candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The staff at Merriam-Webster can track this data, but they do not necessarily always know what drove people to search for a particular word. For instance, people sometimes search for words simply because they are difficult to spell, and at other times, because they need a definition.
“We know something about this word,” Sokolowski said of “surreal.” “It was one of the most looked-up words after 9/11 and other tragedies: the Newtown shootings, the Boston Marathon bombing and the suicide of Robin Williams. We do know this word is associated with a kind of shock, and the surprise that I think a lot of people felt the day after the election.”
According to Merriam-Webster, “surreal” is a relatively new word in the English language, and traces its roots back to the Surrealist art movement of the early 20th century. In the 1920s, Surrealist writers and painters like André Breton and Salvador Dalí received widespread attention for their work depicting the unconscious mind in dreamlike ways, and the word “surreal” came into use in the following decade. It was only in 1967 that Merriam-Webster included “surreal” in its dictionary.
The word “deplorable” also spiked after Clinton used the adjective as a noun to describe what she said were great swaths of Trump’s supporters, and searches for “revenant” also shot up thanks to the successful Leonardo DiCaprio film.
Among the stranger search-term surges was for “bigly.” The way that Trump pronounced the phrase “big league” throughout his campaign led some people to believe that he was saying “bigly.” Linguists at the University of California, Berkeley, used a spectrometer to analyze an audio file of his voice, clearly locating the “g” at the end of the word. They proved that he was, in fact, saying “big league” all along. (And Trump statements and campaign gear feature the two-word version.)
Nevertheless, many liberals used this misunderstanding as an opportunity to mock Trump’s command of English. The barbs come with an ironic twist, because even if Trump had said “bigly,” he wouldn’t have necessarily been wrong. “Bigly” is in the dictionary, but is identified as archaic.
“It is a real word, but its use is very unusual,” Sokolowski said.