Merriam-Webster Inc. has announced its top Words of the Year for 2016. This year's data-driven list is determined by two simple criteria: the words must show a high volume of lookups and a significant year-over-year increase in lookups at Merriam-Webster.com. The results shed light on topics and ideas that sparked the nation's interest in 2016.
The Word of the Year for 2016 is surreal—with lookups of the word spiking after a number of major events worldwide, beginning with the Brussels terror attacks in March. Surreal was used in descriptions of the coup attempt in Turkey later in the year and in coverage of the terrorist attack in Nice. The largest spike in lookups for surreal followed the U.S. election in November.
"Spikes of interest in a word are usually triggered by a single event, so what's truly remarkable this year about surreal is that so many different stories led people to look it up," says Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large for Merriam-Webster. "Historically, surreal has been one of the words most searched after tragedy, most notably in the days following 9/11, but it was associated with a wide variety of stories this year."
Other top lookups this year include bigly—interestingly the most looked-up word that was never actually used. Donald Trump used the phrase big league in a presidential debate, and often throughout the election, but the manner in which he pronounced the words caused many people to assume he was using a single word—bigly.
The word deplorable saw a large spike in lookups after Hillary Clinton used it in an unusual way.
Deplorable is defined as an adjective but Clinton's unfamiliar use of the word as a noun may have sent people to the dictionary for clarification.
Pop culture and entertainment drove lookups to revenant, the frontier film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and a word frequently looked up from the film's release through his Oscar win. The news of Prince's death caused a spike in the word icon, meaning "a person who is very successful and admired." The return of Gilmore girls inspired many people to look up the Latin phrase in omnia paratus, which means "ready for all things."
"Events often have specific words tied to them, and it's always fascinating to see which of those words people latch onto," says Kory Stamper, Associate Editor at Merriam-Webster. "You can get a sense as to how people are responding to an event by the words that are looked up again and again."