Merriam-Webster has selected “surreal,” (“marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream”) as 2016’s word of the year – fitting for a year that saw the Chicago Cubs win a World Series and a reality TV star/real estate mogul win the White House.
The dictionary site recorded a significant spike in “surreal” searches compared with 2015, with the largest spike occurring after Election Day.
“The dictionary is a neutral observer of the culture,” Merriam-Webster Editor-at-Large Peter Sokolowski says in a video announcing the word of the year. “We can’t always know the reason a person looks up a word in the dictionary; we only know when. We’re good at reading data; we’re not good at reading minds.”
Surreal experienced three major spikes in 2016: In March, when the word was used during coverage of the terror attacks in Brussels; in July, when it was used to describe a coup attempt in Turkey and the terrorist attack in Nice; and in November, when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.
To select a word of the year, editors zero in on words that are suddenly hot, rather than words that receive the most overall look-ups. That means they rule out so-called “evergreen” words such as democracy, fascism and pragmatic, which are looked up frequently year-round, regardless of specific news events.
(Speaking of regardless: Sokolowski mentions that an unnamed broadcaster used “irregardless” during the World Series coverage, sending many folks straight to their online dictionaries. “Irregardless is indeed a real word,” Sokolowski says. “But we advise strongly against using it. Use regardless instead.”)
Surreal was first defined by Merriam-Webster in 1967 (the same year The Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band!”) and is derived from surrealism, the artistic movement associated with Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte.
“Surreal is often looked up spontaneously in moments of both tragedy and surprise, whether or not it is used in speech or writing,” Merriam-Webster said in a statement announcing the selection. “This is not surprising: We often search for just the right word to help us bring order to abstract thoughts, emotions or reactions. Surreal seems to be, for 2016, such a word.”
Last month, Dictionary.com selected “xenophobia” as its word of the year, citing “worldwide interest in the unfortunate rise of fear of otherness in 2016.”
Last week, the Guardian nominated “unpresidented” for word-of-the-year honours, a response to Trump’s weekend tweet in which he wrote, “China steals United States navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented act.” The tweet was deleted and replaced with one using “unprecedented.”
Among the Guardian’s suggested definitions for “unpresidented” is: “An instance of someone being prepared to say what most of us are thinking, but actually saying things most of us are not thinking.”
Oxford Dictionaries, meanwhile, declared “post-truth” (“relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”) its international word of the year.
It’s hard to imagine a year more surreal than the one drawing to a close, but 2017 is sure to give 2016 a run for its money.