05/20/2013 10:20 am ET Updated Jul 20, 2013

What Do the Top Online Dictionary Lookups Tell Us, if Anything?

Since English is an acquired language for me, I am a very frequent user of English dictionaries -- and foreign language dictionaries, too, but more on that later. Thus it is no surprise that an article, "The Role of a Dictionary," by David Skinner, at the New York Times this past weekend grabbed my attention.

Skinner's article is full of all kinds of interesting lexicographic tidbits, as one would expect from an author and a member of the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary.

For example, Skinner points out that no dictionary contains every word in the [English] language and that even an unabridged dictionary "is, well, abridged." But perhaps you knew that.

But then Skinner mentions online dictionaries, their increased use and that among the top ten lookups on Merriam-Webster Online at the time of his writing were holistic, pragmatic, caveat, esoteric and bourgeois. The other five, at the time of his writing, were opportunity, disposition, conscientious, bigot and comradery -- your spell checker may flag this last one.

Since I am not a user of online dictionaries -- I look up words "the old-fashioned way" -- I had not given a lot of thought to the use of such dictionaries and, more important, to the ramifications and implications of such technology.

Let us go back 50 or 80 years, to the times when people were busily looking up words in their dog-eared dictionaries to find out how to spell a word or to learn the meaning of a word they had read in the headlines, heard from a neighbor or during a conversation at work -- words often reflecting people's concerns and interests or relating to important issues of the day and current events.

Wouldn't it have been neat to have been able to follow those millions of index fingers sliding down the dictionary pages and to tabulate, sort, "statisticize," etc. to find out what the most looked-up words were in, say, 1929, or 1941, or 1962? (I know, some will cringe at even the mental picture of this kind of allegoric Big Brother.)

Well, today, thanks to technology we know exactly which words Americans are most interested in and perhaps,as a consequence, what their interests, concerns were or are -- not only last year, last month, but also this week, today.

Take Skinner's mention of the top ten lookups on Merriam-Webster Online in Saturday's article. As I emphasized above, at the time of Skinner's writing those were indeed the top ten, but during the next 24 hours the word "holistic" hads already fallen off the charts, to be replaced by "eponymous." (Where did that come from?)

The top ten lookups during the past four months were pragmatic, disposition, didactic, opportunity, paradigm, holistic (there it is again), esoteric, comradery, integrity and ubiquitous.

By the way, talking about "integrity," that word also appeared in the top ten "way back" in 2005. In fact, the word "integrity" led the list, followed by refugee, contempt, filibuster, insipid, tsunami, pandemic, conclave, levee and inept.

A 2005 Christian Science Monitor article takes a somewhat cynical look at the most looked-up words of that year and correlates those words with the political, social and economic climate. "Between the CIA leak investigation, scandals in Congress, and disgraced athletes, 2005 had more than its fair share of ethical disappointment," The Monitor says (Where and when have we heard this before?), and continues:

The result? "Integrity" was the most looked-up word of 2005, according to Merriam-Webster's online dictionary.

That comes as no surprise to many. The reflex to type a word into is often prompted by the desire to understand an event and its context. That is one reason "tsunami" and "filibuster" also made the top 10 list.

In a year in which it seemed in short supply, integrity - defined as firm adherence to a code; incorruptibility - was in high demand.

The piece goes on to explain the "popularity" of other words on the top ten, correlating "refugee" to hurricane Katrina, and how "less-weighty scenarios shaped [the 2005] list, too. Fingers rushed to type in the word 'insipid' after the adjective was uttered on 'American Idol.'"

Fast forward to 2012, an election year. The top ten words were, according to Merriam-Webster: Socialism and capitalism, sharing the top spot, followed by touché, bigot, marriage, democracy, professionalism, globalization, malarkey, schadenfreude and meme.

Merriam-Webster says:

Two words, socialism and capitalism, share the top spot due to discussion and debate around the presidential election. Socialism saw its largest lookup spikes during coverage of healthcare but also saw peaks in the days following both conventions and each of the presidential debates. Capitalism, although looked up somewhat less often, rode the same waves of interest.

Read here more on how "this list sheds light on topics and ideas that sparked the nation's interest in 2012."

Merriam-Webster also has a list of "New Words & Slang" and asks "You know that word that really should be in the dictionary?"

Well, here is a word that certainly should be on that list for 2013, "scandalitis," and should have made the top ten in 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004....


I, for one, should use dictionaries more, especially my English-Spanish dictionary. Although my mother tongue is Spanish, I am getting quite "rusty" as embarrassingly demonstrated during one of my many attempts to "Hispanicize" an English word when I am at loss for a word in Spanish. I will never forget telling my relatives in Ecuador that I was "muy embarazado" about my poor Spanish, and neither will they let me forget....

Read more about my "orphan days in language land" here.