Words at Play

Gallery: Word of the Year 2016

Surreal, irregardless, bigly, revenant, and 6 more of the top lookups in 2016


The Word of the Year for 2016 is surreal, with lookups of the word spiking for different reasons over the course of the year. Beginning with the Brussels terror attacks in March, major spikes included the days following the coup attempt in Turkey and the terrorist attack in Nice, with the largest spike in lookups for surreal following the U.S. election in November.

Surreal is looked up spontaneously in moments of both tragedy and surprise, whether or not it is used in speeches or articles. This year, other spikes corresponded to a variety of events, from to Prince’s death, to the Pulse shooting in Orlando; from the Brexit vote, to commentary about the presidential debates.

Surreal was also used in its original sense, referring to incongruous or unrealistic artistic expression, in reviews for the movie "The Lobster."

The definition of surreal is: “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream.” It’s a relatively new word in English, only dating back to the 1930s, derived from descriptions of the artistic movement of the early 1900s known as surrealism.

It’s a word that is used to express a reaction to something shocking or surprising, a meaning which is built into its parts: the “real” of surreal is preceded by the French preposition sur, which means “over” or “above.” When we don’t believe or don’t want to believe what is real, we need a word for what seems “above” or “beyond” reality. Surreal is such a word.

For more information on how we chose this year's Word of the Year, go behind the scenes with editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski. And don't miss our in-depth look at surreal.

the-revenant-movie-poster
Photo: 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Spikes for revenant began in late 2015, with the release of “The Revenant,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Nominations and wins at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards kept the word in the news and in our lookup data into well into 2016.

Revenant means "one that returns after death or a long absence," and comes from the French word that means "to return." It was first used to mean "ghost," "specter," or "wraith," and then developed the meaning "one who returns to a former place after prolonged absence"; both meanings seem to fit the film’s story.

It’s an unfamiliar word for most of us, which is probably the main reason for looking it up. The idea of returning from the dead, the word's echo of covenant, and maybe even DiCaprio's beard all give revenant a vaguely biblical character, but in fact the word doesn't appear in the Bible. Its first use in English, coincidentally, is almost exactly contemporary with the real-life incident depicted in the film, in the early 1800s.

Icon spiked in April, in a moment of collective sadness at the news of Prince’s death.

Icon means “a person who is very successful and admired,” and is the root word of iconic and iconoclastic, both of which also showed smaller spikes during the same period. Icon originally simply referred to an image or a pictorial representation; later it took on a religious significance in much of its use. It then came to mean, more broadly, “a successful and admired person.”

It’s interesting that Prince should be described both with the words icon and iconoclast, which originally meant “one who destroys religious images”—or, in a sense, “one who destroys icons.”

In omnia paratus, the Latin phrase that means “ready for all things,” spiked when the Netflix revival of “Gilmore girls” was released. The phrase was first used back in the original run of the series as well, and has become a rallying cry for fans.

It's pronounced \in-AWM-nee-ah-pah-RAH-tooss.

Did he really say bigly? Is bigly even a word?

Donald Trump actually said big league and not bigly during the September 26 debate, as linguists were able to demonstrate with spectrogram analysis and evidence of Trump’s frequent use of big league as an adverb, as in: “I’m going to cut taxes big league.”

Since English speakers expect many adverbs to end in -ly, it’s easy to understand the confusion. It’s also true that we only give definitions for big league as a noun and adjective in the dictionary. Bigly is indeed a real word, but it is rarely seen (or heard). All of which means that bigly stands out as the most looked-up word that was never actually used in 2016.

Hillary Clinton’s use of the word deplorables when describing “half of Trump supporters” sent many people to the dictionary to look up the word. One reason some people may have looked up the word may be that it seems unfamiliar: deplorable is defined as an adjective meaning either “lamentable” or “deserving censure or contempt,” a synonym of “wretched” or “abominable.” But Clinton’s use in the plural, deplorables, marks the word as a noun—and deplorable is not defined as a noun in Merriam-Webster dictionaries. (Deplorableness is given as the noun form.)

In this case, it wasn't just the news event that drove lookups: the word itself was newsworthy.

One of the broadcasters calling the final game of the World Series used the word irregardless on the air, and was roundly criticized on social media. Inevitably, many people looked it up; many posts on social media claimed that irregardless “isn’t a word.”

We never said that it isn’t a word, but we do advise strongly against using it. It’s labeled nonstandard, but it has appeared in print so frequently over the years that it has been included in the dictionary. The final words of our entry are: “Use regardless instead.”

Congressman Joe Kennedy introduced his former professor, Senator Elizabeth Warren, at the Democratic National Convention with an anecdote about his embarrassing first day of law school:

First day of law school. First class. The goal: escape unscathed. Three seconds in, I get the first question:

“Mr. Kennedy, what is the definition of assumpsit?”
“Uhhh…”
“Mr. Kennedy, you realize assumpsit was the first word in your reading?”
“Yes. I circled it because I didn’t know what it meant.”
“Mr. Kennedy, do you own a dictionary? That’s what people use when they don’t know a word.”
I never showed up unprepared for Professor Elizabeth Warren again.
—Joseph P. Kennedy III, as quoted in [The Boston Globe] (https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/politics/2016/07/25/joe-kennedy-iii-recalls-warren-law-professor/HLOxGdpfR4iitFqVYG4HnK/story.html), 26 July 2016

Since Kennedy never actually explained what assumpsit means, lookups for assumpsit skyrocketed in the minutes after he told his story; the following morning, lookups were still high at an astonishing 92,000% increase over the previous month's average.

Assumpsit is a legal term defined as an express or implied promise or contract, the breach of which may be grounds for a lawsuit.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg used the French expression faute de mieux in a written opinion for a decision announced in June. Lookups for the phrase spiked high.

The concurring opinion was written when the Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that would have closed all but nine abortion clinics in the state:

When a state severely limits access to safe and legal procedures, women in desperate circumstances may resort to unlicensed rogue practitioners, faute de mieux, at great risk to their health and safety.

¬Faute de mieux is pronounced \foht-duh-MYUH\ and means “for lack of something better.” Foreign phrases that are frequently used in English are included in the dictionary.

Feckless
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Lookups for feckless, meaning “weak” or “ineffective,” spiked dramatically after Mike Pence used it in the vice-presidential debate in October.

After Mr. Kaine mentioned Mr. Trump’s frequent praise of Vladimir Putin and the Trump campaign’s “shadowy connections with pro-Putin forces,” Mr. Pence blamed the Obama administration’s “weak and feckless foreign policy” for Russian aggression.
—Nicholas Confessore and Matt Flegenheimer, The New York Times, 4 Oct. 2016

Feckless has become a favorite of U.S. politicians in recent years. Both Senator John McCain and Governor Chris Christie, among others, have used the word in highly publicized speeches or debates.

It comes from the Scottish word feck, which can mean “value” or “worth,” and so a thing that is feckless may also be said to be “worthless."

In case you're wondering, the word feckful, meaning “efficient,” “sturdy,” or ‘”powerful,” does exist, though it is very rarely used.




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