After Dallas, lookups increase for 'racism,' 'sniper,' 'divisive,' and more
The words we looked up after a week of tragedy
Following a week of tragedy including events in Louisiana, Minnesota, and now Texas, today saw an increase in lookups for specific words used in press coverage and general words that reflect our emotions and attempts to understand what happened and why.
The word racism has been trending high over the past year, but has spiked to become the top lookup following the events of this week.
Race has come to the forefront of an essential national conversation, one that has been a part of the American experience for centuries, but racism is a relatively new word in English: we currently have no evidence of its use prior to the early 1900s.
Humanity is the second most looked-up word, a word used in reaction to the shootings in both hopeful and despondent contexts. House Speaker Paul Ryan said “let’s not lose sight of the values that unite us, our common humanity,” and there were references to the “decency and humanity” of those who helped victims of the attack. There were also references in social media to “losing faith in humanity” and questions such as “how can this actually be humanity?”
Terrorism spiked as the mayor of Dallas indicated that it can’t be ruled out as a motive for the attacks, and some reports similarly used terrorism to refer specifically to possible links to international terrorism. Others asserted that such acts qualify as domestic terrorism whatever their motive, reflecting a long-standing debate about what does and does not constitute terrorism in the context of gun violence. In a blog post for The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb wrote that “we live in an age of open-source terrorism.”
The word terrorism has its origins in political violence, not by anti-government groups but rather in the violence perpetrated by the provisional government of France during the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror.”
Anarchy was used to describe both the confusion at the scene in Dallas and the broader sense of a lack of control in American civic life with respect to race relations and the use of guns. Anarchy has been in our language since the beginning of the 16th century, and originally meant “absence of government.” The word has since broadened to refer to a more general absence of order or authority. It comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “having no ruler.”
Sniper also spiked. The specific targets of this coordinated attack, made all too real by videos posted online by witnesses, made it clear that the shooting was from a hidden place and targeted exposed individuals—the definition of sniping. The verb snipe comes from the name of the snipe, a game bird which was often hunted in this way.
Standoff spiked because of descriptions of the encounter that included some communication between the shooting suspect and police, an encounter which ended in the suspect’s death. Defined as a confrontation in which there is no winner, the earliest use of standoff appears to have been in the context of games such as poker, and referred simply to a tie or draw between players.
President Obama called the shootings a “vicious, calculated, despicable attack on law enforcement,” making lookups for despicable spike. Despicable is defined as “so worthless or obnoxious as to rouse moral indignation,” and comes from the Latin word despicari, meaning “to look down upon” or “to despise.”
Lookups for divisive show that the story immediately became political regarding both race and guns. The Guardian reported that the shootings were likely to “inject yet more tension into the already divisive debate over racial disparities in US policing,” and Ben Carson said, of President Obama, that “He doesn't need to inject the divisive arguments like gun control at a time of great grief for the nation.” As the Washington Post reported: “Summer 2016 threatens to be long and divisive.”
Before it had the current meaning of “creating disunity,” divisive meant “having the quality of separating or distinguishing” as may be seen in our earliest known use of the word, from a 1586 text by Christopher Fetherston, in which he writes of setting things in order by “using a divisive instrument.”
Dividing the country into two camps—or resisting such a division—had already been the subject of commentary following police shootings of black men in Falcon Heights, Minnesota and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Following the Dallas shootings, we saw a spike in lookups of mutually exclusive, from the same idea as expressed by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer when he said that "supporting police and communities of color are not mutually exclusive."
We have been referring to things as being mutually exclusive since at least 1804, when the phrase was used in Thomas Taylor’s An Answer to Dr. Gillie’s Supplement: “…must not the same individual be at once a biped and a quadruped, and thus the same subject be at once endowed with two mutually exclusive attributes?”
Finally, surreal. Surreal is the word looked up spontaneously in moments of public tragedy, whether or not it is used in speeches or articles. It spiked after 9/11, the Newtown shootings, the Boston Marathon bombing, the suicide of Robin Williams, and, now, the events of this week. It shows what many people are thinking about as they try to process another horrific act. Some words are sought to help us bring order to the abstract thoughts and emotions of our reactions to such news.
But it’s the definition of surreal that can perhaps be seen as the beginning of reflection:
: marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream