What’s the word?

Was 2016 some alternate reality? A dream? A fantastic trip down the rabbit hole?

Given the intense political and cultural dialogue of 2016, it seems only fitting that the word of the year for 2016, as selected by dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster, is “surreal.” The word joins and complements the pick of “post-truth” as Oxford Dictionaries top word of 2016.

Both companies track usage and how often words are looked up on their websites to come up with the top choices.

“Post-truth” is formally defined as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotional and personal belief.” The phrase has been around for the past 10 years, according to Oxford Dictionaries, but it spiked in usage this past year particularly in the context of the Brexit vote in Britain and the election of Donald Trump here in the U.S.

The word “surreal” means unusual or of having the un-real quality of a dream. The word, of course, dates back to the artistic movement of the 1920s. However, it began to exist on its own in the late ‘30s, according to Merriam-Webster. The company says that there were a number of periods of interest in the word this past year, particularly after tragic events. Big spikes in people looking up the word came after the terrorist attacks in Brussels and Nice. However, the biggest surge in lookups occurred following the election of Donald Trump.

Merriam-Webster also recently announced an update of 1,000 new words and definitions to its website, Merriam-webster.com. According to Meghan Lungi, a spokeswoman for Merriam-Webster, the last time the on-line and print editions were updated was in 2014, when just 150 words were added.

New entries include “binge-watch,” meaning to view many or all shows or seasons of a TV series in quick sequence (generally in a comfortable setting with blankets and snacks). Currently, my daughter, home from school with a cold, is binge-watching the fifth season of “The Office,” from her tissue-strewn set-up on the coach.

Her situation prevents her from attending today’s math class where her teacher, with good reason, frequently “throws shade” on her math skills. “Throwing shade,” another new addition to the dictionary, originated in black and Latino culture in the 1980s and means to express disdain through indirect or subtle insults, often with humor. For example, and I quote, “Miracles do happen,” in response to my daughter’s correct answer to an algebra question.

My son, a college freshman, introduced me to the word “microaggression,” a term he learned in class. It is defined as a comment or action that indirectly and occasionally unconsciously expresses bias toward a member of a marginalized group. The term was coined in 1970 by psychiatrist Chester Pierce. “Safe space,” another popular campus word, refers to a place intended to be free of discrimination, conflict and condemnation. As a budding journalist, my son disparages campus safe spaces. It is pretty hard to get a good story, he says, since no one will talk to reporters in safe spaces.

Other terms are: “arancini,” Italian deep fried rice balls (Arthur Avenue Deli in Honesdale has a fine version); and “ghosting” which means to suddenly cut off contact with another person, usually a former romantic companion or friend. Also added were “photobomb,” “EVOO” (abbreviation for extra-virgin olive oil) and “Seussian” (referring to Dr. Seuss).

Speculation for the top words of 2017 has already begun. Top words being frequently looked up at present, according to Word Counter.net, are “fascism” and “apartheid.” Undeniably, the conjecture for the top word of 2017 is off to a dire start.


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