Word Matters Podcast

The Story of a Trending Word

Word Matters, Episode 48

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When a lot of people look up the same word on our site at the same time, we generally know one thing: something happened, somewhere. So we do a little research, and then that research becomes one of the most enduring M-W features: Trend Watch. Here's the story of how we started tracking the stories.

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Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: trending words. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

We at Merriam-Webster know what you're thinking. Well, sort of. We know how many people are looking up a particular word at a particular time. And from there we can infer what has captured the curiosity of the dictionary-going public. Here are Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski on one of our most enduring features on merriam-webster.com, Trend Watch.

Ammon Shea: One of the most popular features of the online dictionary that we have at Merriam-Webster is what we refer to as the Trend Watch section of our site. Which is where we do short articles on words that are trending in the news and consequently trending in lookups on our dictionary. It's not the newest aspect of our site. We've been doing it for what? About-

Peter Sokolowski: About 10 years.

Ammon Shea: About 10 years now, right?

Peter Sokolowski: It seems logical an online dictionary would report on the data or report on the lookups. But in fact, when it started we were new to this and it was all innocent. If we go back before the website Trend Watch articles, we used to do a monthly report of the lookups for internal use only. And I was the editor who did it. And so I would look at the analytics and we'd just look at the top 10 or 20 words. And for this monthly report we would try to assess why. In some cases we could tell. It was from the news, it was from an election. And some cases, we had no idea why a certain word. But that's how we started understanding patterns.

Ammon Shea: This was 10 years ago when the news was slow.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, no, I'm talking about around 2002, 2003.

Ammon Shea: Oh, 20 years ago.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, a long time ago when-

Ammon Shea: The news was really slow.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, the fact is we just didn't have any kind of sense of anticipation. We didn't know essentially the basic question, which is, "What makes a person look up a word?" Sometimes that is a very obvious thing. And you think, "Well, it must be spelling or a very difficult or unusual word." But it turns out a lot of the words that are looked up in the dictionary are not that unusual or even not that hard to spell. But anyway, going from that monthly report and my awareness of this data. Cut to early social media, early Twitter. And the little mission that I was given as a person who really was not that tech savvy and not really a native of social media, not that anyone really was, but I was asked to sort of present "behind the scenes" of the dictionary. And that's a really quiet story. It's actually kind of boring. And it did occur to me on a certain day that there was this daily data that would sometimes move and correspond with the news. And I went to speak with the company's president, John Morse, and I said, "Would it be okay for me to present our data on Twitter as a kind of lookups? Lookups of this moment." And he didn't hesitate. He said, "Sure, go ahead." And so the very first one... I had to go back and look... and it's kind of interesting and coincidental. May 4th, 2009, the most looked up word in the dictionary for the whole month of April was the word pandemic. That was the very first sort of trend report.

Ammon Shea: For surely.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. And that was for obviously a different pandemic and a different disease. But what's interesting about this is initially for that first year or so, I just presented them on Twitter on my own personal account. And then we would sometimes put them on the corporate account, Merriam-Webster. And then finally we made a landing page on the website at merriam-webster.com. The executive who helped with the websites, Miles Kronby, who helped a lot with this. And at that time we didn't have all the flexibility that we do now. It was only once a week that we would present the Trend Watch.

Ammon Shea: And what was the first big word that we had kind of a discernible spike for?

Peter Sokolowski: The first time we noticed that this was a thing, that this was a phenomenon, was actually the death of Princess Diana. And that goes back of course to 1997. Because we had just put the website up within, whatever, 9 or 10 months of that event. The list of words that we saw was relatively static. It kind of looked like a vocabulary list. Kind of looked like an SAT study list. A lot of abstract words like integrity and ubiquitous and paradigm. These are the kinds of words that we would see being looked up. And words like affect and effect, words that give people trouble and send people to the dictionary. And then when Princess Diana died, we saw all of those words shift suddenly. And immediately the words were paparazzi. And that was maybe the first true vocabulary word that we noticed that spiked to the top. And that's for a lot of good reasons. It was in the news obviously, it was the reported cause of her death. But also, it's a hard word to spell. Are there two R's, two Z's?

Ammon Shea: Z's all over the place.

Peter Sokolowski: You can see every newsroom in the country checking up on it. And that's exactly what we saw in our data. But also we saw the word cortege on the day of her funeral, because that was a term that was used. But then the most interesting one, and maybe the one that taught us the biggest lesson, was the word princess itself. The word princess spiked. And we all thought, "Well, that's a fairly common word. It's not really difficult to understand. It's not that hard to spell." And it showed us that people go to the dictionary for information that I would say in this case is kind of extralexical, not lexical. It is maybe encyclopedic. Maybe people were asking questions about being a princess. Does one have to be born a princess? Is princess automatically going to become a queen? Is a princess higher than a duchess? These are the kind of questions you can answer from the definition of princess without being ignorant of the word.

Ammon Shea: Sure. One of the things that I'd like to point out though with paparazzi, aside of being hard to spell and perhaps hard to pronounce and an unusual word for many people, it has other qualities about it that we often see in our Trend Watches, which is that people like to nitpick to whether it is paparazzi... Is that the correct plural? And we entered it as paparazzo-

Peter Sokolowski: Paparazzo.

Ammon Shea: ... as the single and paparazzi as the plural. And it's one of these minor grammatical things that people kind of nitpick with each other and point out. And so this is the kind of thing that people then look to the dictionary for.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure. It's like graffiti has a singular. And ravioli has a singular. They're all in the dictionary.

Ammon Shea: But people, they come to the dictionary, not because they want to know the meaning. They already know the meanings.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, they're checking.

Ammon Shea: It's because they want to prove a point or solve an argument. And in this case, it also has this lovely backstory that it comes from the surname of the photographer Fellini film La Dolce Vita. The photographer's name was Paparazzo.

Peter Sokolowski: I forgot about that.

Ammon Shea: It's not obvious that that's the logical singular form because it's based on an eponymous word.

Peter Sokolowski: Wow. That's how we learned that this was an observable phenomenon. For 400 years English language dictionary makers had no idea what sent someone to the dictionary. And now we started having these clues. I always say we're good at reading data. We're not good at reading minds. However, some news stories clearly trigger lookups in the dictionary.

Ammon Shea: An interesting story. I didn't really put my finger on this, but that I noticed long ago before I started working at Merriam-Webster, I went through a phase where I read the Oxford English Dictionary. And I read it from cover to cover. And I didn't like reading at home, sometimes I would go to the library and I would just use a copy in the library. And one of the things that I noticed, and this is as low tech as you can possibly get, but that there were certain words that you could tell they were looked up more than others because of the thumb smudges in the sections.

Peter Sokolowski: Page.

Ammon Shea: And there was woman and marriage and word were always looked up.

Peter Sokolowski: No kidding.

Ammon Shea: Yeah. And so you could tell, sometimes the page would be ripped out or something like that. But you can actually get lexical data, lookup data from looking at physical copies of well-thumbed, public copies that are used by everybody.

Peter Sokolowski: That is fantastic. I've never heard.

Ammon Shea: Could look at the spine and see where people had put their thumbs more often than in other places.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure. Wow. The well-thumbed dictionaries in our office, and there are a lot of them, typically because they're used by professionals who are lexicographers, they're all over the place.

Ammon Shea: Thumbed indiscriminately.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. And they don't show this kind of consistent use. That's an amazing thing. We've seen patterns that go kind of according to the season. For example, in the month of February, the word love is the number one word. In September we see back to schoolwork words, which include words that you would hear at an orientation. We see plagiarism, but we also see the word diversity, which is a word that is used in orientation.

Ammon Shea: And you see words like heuristic when college students go back.

Peter Sokolowski: Words like science, the word science.

Ammon Shea: Sure. Right. At some level tell when it's high school versus grammar school versus collegiate.

Peter Sokolowski: And certain words from literature. But certainly words from the news and from major league sports and big entertainment.

Ammon Shea: What I think is interesting is we have all these words that trend, but they trend for very different reasons. An obvious reason, as you pointed out with Princess Diana, is death. And so for instance, the word icon spiked when Michael Jackson died, when David Bowie passed, when Prince passed away, and when Burt Reynolds did. All of these were viewed as iconic. That we saw in representation of that in lookups. Sometimes we see a kind of second-hand representation of a word. When Steve Jobs died, a lot of obituaries refer to him as mercurial. And you've seen that in other obituaries.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. Mercurial is one of those words that is used maybe more by journalists than by normal people. It's kind of a headline word or a term used in obits. We've seen it with respect to Kadafi. And to Keith Olbermann, but that had to do not with his death but with, I think, being fired or-

Ammon Shea: Right, because he's still alive.

Peter Sokolowski: He's still alive and well. Maybe because he switched networks, there was a mercurial aspect to it. And it's an interesting word to see connected to these very different people.

Ammon Shea: Yeah. The most obvious and significant driver of trending words over the past 50 years for us has of course been Donald Trump. And he has had an enormous effect on people going to the dictionary. Sometimes it's when he has misused a word. Like when he said that something was not going to happen under his auspices. This is not an unusual mistake for people to make, but he's a very prominent figure so a lot of attention is paid to it. He was perhaps somewhat more in the habit of using words in non-traditional ways than some other public figures. And so that received a lot of attention. But then there were times that he didn't necessarily misuse words. But if people wanted to think that he did. So for instance, he would say that something bigly, big league. Was he saying big league or was he saying bigly? And people thought bigly isn't a word. And it turns out we do in fact enter bigly.

Peter Sokolowski: And yet it was determined that he in fact usually was saying big league. But so quickly that people heard it otherwise.

Ammon Shea: Sure. But it's in no way a mistake. And then he had a lot of what are obviously controversial positions. And he also brought about a lot of differing opinions. And so passions arise high with stuff like this. And a lot of words were reflective of that. But he's not the only politician that's driven words. He drove more words than the other ones. But for instance, we've seen malarkey. Every time Joe Biden says no malarkey it goes through the roof.

Peter Sokolowski: And it goes back to the 1980s. We have evidence, right?

Ammon Shea: Yeah, he's been using malarkey his whole adult life.

Peter Sokolowski: It's a word we associate with Irish American English, I think. And he's an Irish American. And I remember he used it memorably in a vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan who's another Irish American.

Ammon Shea: It feels like it's an Irish word. But my understanding is that it is not in fact Irish.

Peter Sokolowski: No, it's an American word, I think. But possibly derived from one of the surnames that sounds like that.

Ammon Shea: Could be. We have origin unknown. It's early 20th century.

Peter Sokolowski: And his use there's almost a euphemistic quality. Like he would have used a stronger word, but not in front of the children. And also the other thing about it is it resonates again with his persona. It seems old fashioned somehow, maybe not terribly offensive, not intending to cause offense certainly.

Ammon Shea: Politics, not just political figures, but the language of politics has driven a huge amount of words. One of the words that's started coming up more and more frequently is the word feckless. And feckless started coming up, I think, Obama was referred to as feckless by a Republican in a debate. And then it feels like it just kind of spread from there and it started being applied to other people as well. But when it was first used in the debates, we used to see a large number of words trending in debates. And feckless has come up a number of times.

Peter Sokolowski: Can you be feckful?

Ammon Shea: You can in fact be feckful. Yeah, in fact, it's not a euphemism. It's an old Scottish word, or a Scottish dialectical word. And feckful is not very common. We have entered it before.

Peter Sokolowski: It does exist.

Ammon Shea: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: The thing is, we're showing here and what we see in the Trend Watch, is that people are paying attention. I remember when, for example, the wrong Best Film was announced at the Oscars just a few years ago. The word that was looked up was the word gaffe. It's another kind of journalistic word, another headline word. That was the big spike because it was a big story, had to do with the Oscars. So it's not only politics and it's not only celebrities by themselves. It can be a broader picture.

Ammon Shea: One of the things that happens on occasion is we suddenly will see a word spiking. We have really no good reason for it. And my favorite one of these was during the recent vice presidential debate between Harris and Pence, the word gravata, which is defined as "a tough resistant cordage fiber obtained from the leaves of a South American bromeliad that is closely related to the cultivated pineapple." This word is spiking, it went through the roof. We really had no idea why. And then we noticed shortly after that also spiking to a lesser extent was gravitas. What we kind of thought was that people thought gravata was the singular form of gravitas. Or they just misspelled it or something like that. But they went to the dictionary and they found something perhaps unexpected.

Peter Sokolowski: Or if they're keying it in and they just may have landed first on the wrong one.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely.

Peter Sokolowski: I mean, one time what happened at, I think, a Sunday night and a word spiked. And I had no idea why. The word was hoosegow, which is a word that means "jail."

Ammon Shea: Sure, prison.

Peter Sokolowski: And I have no idea. And so I actually went on Twitter and it was kind of prime time, 9:00 PM or something. And I said, "Did somebody just say hoosegow on TV?" And many people responded, "Yes." The Sunday night football game was played and there was a streaker who ran across the field. And the announcer, I believe was Al Michaels. The problem for the announcer then is you've got to keep talking. The game is interrupted. So the police chased him and they threw a towel over the guy. And the announcer said, "They're taking him off to the hoosegow." And clearly what we learned is many people are watching football with their laptops open.

Ammon Shea: Sure.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. Peter and Ammon will be back after the break with more notable words from notable events. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Neil Serven: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word. Available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: If you enjoy Word Matters, check out the Science Diction podcast from the producers of Public Radio Science Friday. It's a podcast about words and the science behind them. On a recent episode, Language Evolves, Peter and I talk with Johanna Mayer about words born out of mistakes. That's Science Diction. Available wherever you get your podcasts.

Ammon Shea: One of the words that spikes, not constantly, but consistently, is of course irregardless. And it often spikes when people use it in television, oftentimes newscasters or sports announcers. And this is also a classic example of people who are going to the dictionary not to look for the meaning of a word. Because let's face it, you may not like it, but everybody knows what irregardless means at this point. Nobody's going to check the definition. The reason people don't like it is because how it is defined in precisely the same manner as regardless. So we all know what we're going to find when we go to the dictionary. People are going to the dictionary to see if it's there. They want to feel like, "Does the dictionary condone this behavior?" And, "Is there some kind of usage label on this word or something like that?" It's not actual linguistic information, but it's not definitional.

Peter Sokolowski: That gets to a real important motivation for looking up a word in the dictionary. I think it has to be said, which is to correct somebody else. And I think that's an important motivation. It's important to understand. There are lots of reasons we go to the dictionary and that's clearly a powerful one. But at the same time, I remember again with politics, just the moments before a debate we would see the word debate itself spike. And often the word moderator as well. And sometimes I would put that on Twitter and we would often see responses saying, "Well, no wonder America is going to pieces. We don't even know what the word debate means." And I always think curiosity in this case is the opposite of ignorance. In the case of debate, for example, it may be again a kind of encyclopedic curiosity. Is a debate only held between two candidates? Can there only be one moderator? Does the moderator have to be a journalist? There's so many questions that the definition can kind of help you with. And that is just augmenting your knowledge of the word. It doesn't mean that you don't anything.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely. And a classic example of that that's happening right now is that for the past several weeks we have been seeing infrastructure trending. Huge increase in lookups of infrastructure. We all, I think, have some kind of working definition, some of us more than others. But it's also, there's not a singular meaning to the word.

Peter Sokolowski: No. It's a tough one.

Ammon Shea: Right. And it's also changing as technology and as society changes. So we change the dictionary definitions with the changing meanings of the word. And sometimes we're fairly current and sometimes we're running a bit behind. But I suppose people are coming to the dictionary to look up infrastructure, both to bolster their argument but also to find out what has happened [crosstalk 00:17:31].

Peter Sokolowski: There's a real question here. And it's a classic kind of bureaucratic word also. And it's, again, a Latin-based word as so many of them are. And it can seem a little bit abstract and some people argue it can only be concrete. The interesting thing about that to me is that a lot of construction words are used metaphorically; I hit the wall, or a pillar of our community, and so we closed the door to that idea. And actually, if you look up something like build bridges in a corpus, you'll find roughly 80% of the use of to build bridges is metaphor.

Ammon Shea: Burning bridges is probably much more than that.

Peter Sokolowski: Much more than that. But the point is, one of the arguments about infrastructure is, it's about "roads and bridges." But if you look up to build bridges as just an English phrase-

Ammon Shea: Building bridges isn't usually about building bridges.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly. It's usually not about building bridges. This points to the real subject of all of this, which is that language is so complex. It really is.

Ammon Shea: And what I love about the Trend Watch feature that we have is because you and I get alerts when words are spiking and it can elicit different feelings. If I see schadenfreude spiking, I know somebody has got some sort of comeuppance. And if I see surreal spiking, I know something really unpleasant and terrible has happened. Because whenever we have some massive tragedy, some earthquake or a school shooting or something like that, surreal is starting to trend.

Peter Sokolowski: And that's something we have learned over time. It was a big surprise, I think, the first time we really noticed it was after 9/11, the word surreal was the big lookup. But then after these other events, the Boston Marathon Bombing, Robin Williams's suicide, the Newtown shootings. And now we see it in this pattern in moments of shock or horror. What's interesting to me about this one is that unlike many of these news-derived terms, I don't think that the word is uttered by a newsmaker. I think this is a spontaneous thing that for some reason American speakers of English do altogether in these moments. And I think we have to look to the dictionary in some moments for, I would almost call it, philosophy or comfort of ideas. The reification of an idea is a definition or to have it explained to you. And surreal brings us to this poignancy, this difficulty, this impossibility to absorb some piece of news. And it's interesting to me to see that the dictionary is used that way also. Not just to sort of correct somebody else's English, but to maybe affirm your own emotions in a particular tense moment.

Ammon Shea: What I love about just this feature and getting this information is that we can tell something that's been happening in this lexical way. If we see icon, we know that somebody has just passed away. If we see surreal, we know a tragedy has happened. If we see the word slumgullion trending, we know that Turner Classic Movies has rebroadcast the 1947 film It Happened on 5th Avenue, because every year or two they broadcast this and the word slumgullion-

Peter Sokolowski: Spikes?

Ammon Shea: ... spikes.

Peter Sokolowski: Which is a kind of soup?

Ammon Shea: It's a beef stew, is the common one. There's a character in the movie who's talking about his former wife. And he says she made the finest slumgullion in the whole state. Slumgullion has some other less appealing definitions, like the mixed blood, oil and saltwater they collect on the decks of a whaling ship. It's some really unpalatable meanings. But people are looking for the stew sense.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. And so it's triggered by the same movie broadcast on the same channel?

Ammon Shea: Which apparently, it's showing that there's a certain number of people who at least are still watching.

Peter Sokolowski: There's another one that's really purely dictionary to me, which is the Spelling Bee. The last few words... full disclosure, I'm part of the Spelling Bee team from Merriam-Webster that goes to the Bee. I always give a kind of color commentary on Twitter about the words that are being looked up, often with etymological information or something else. But the fact is those last 10 or 12 words are always words that are new to everybody. And intentionally, because they have to be the most difficult words for the best spellers in the world. So those are words that send people to the dictionary. And the winner is always a word... First of all, it's a word that all spellers studying for the Spelling Bee will memorize very quickly because they'll know that is potentially a Spelling Bee word in the future. Although, of course, if you think about it, the Scripps Spelling Bee people are really smart and they never use the same word in the last round. But boy, and it also points to the difficulty of that task of mastering English spelling. Guetapens was one.

Ammon Shea: Guetapens and scherenschnitte.

Peter Sokolowski: So scherenschnitte from German, so there's a lot of sch's in there and with a double T and an E. Scherenschnitte, which is a sort of Swiss German kind of cut paper form of art. And guetapens which means a kind of trap, from guet-apens, the French word meaning to spy or to spy on. Often those words that win the Bee are words that are hard phonetically to determine. And like with these two words, they're good examples actually. These are modern borrowings from living languages. In other words, these spellers are so good that if you use a word that has Greek or Latin roots, they're going to get it. But if you use a word that was borrowed say in the 19th or 20th century, it's more likely that we've retained in English the foreign spelling for these words. They haven't been anglicized as much as medieval borrowings from French. A lot going on in the dictionary.

Now, of course we have on the homepage, a wonderful little living guide. Every 30 seconds, the homepage is updated and you can see which words are spiking. And I find that to be a revelation every time. And it can be kind of mesmerizing. You can kind of sit there and look at what these words are that are refreshed over and over.

Ammon Shea: So for all of you who have sat around at night, wondering to yourself, "I wonder what words people are looking up right now in the dictionary." You have this information at your fingertips.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at any nepm.org. And for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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