Was 2016 a dream or a nightmare?
Try something in between: “surreal,” which is US dictionary Merriam-Webster's word of the year.
Meaning “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream,” or “unbelievable, fantastic,” the word joins Oxford's “post-truth” and Dictionary.com's “xenophobia” as the year's top choices.
“It just seems like one of those years,” said Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster's editor-at-large.
The company tracks year-over-year growth and spikes in lookups of words on its website to come up with the top choice. This time around, there were many periods of interest in “surreal” throughout the year, often in the aftermath of tragedy, Sokolowski said.
Major spikes came after the Brussels attack in March and again in July, after the Bastille Day massacre in Nice and the attempted coup in Turkey. All three received huge attention around the globe and had many in the media reaching for “surreal” to describe both the physical scenes and the “mental landscapes,” Sokolowski said.
The single biggest spike in lookups came in November, he said, specifically November 9, the day Donald Trump went from candidate to president-elect.
There were also smaller spikes, including after the death of Prince in April at age 57 and after the June shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
Irony mixed with the surreal for yet another bump after the March death of Garry Shandling. His first sitcom, It's Garry Shandling's Show, premiered on Showtime in 1986 and had him busting through the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience and mimicking his real life as a standup comedian, but one who knew he was starring in a TV show.
“It was surreal and it's connected to the actual original meaning of surreal, which is to say it comes from Surrealism, the artistic movement of the early 20th century,” Sokolowski said.
Which is to say that “surreal” didn't exist as a word until around 1924, after a group of European poets, painters and filmmakers founded a movement they called Surrealism. They sought to access the truths of the unconscious mind by breaking down rational thought.
It wasn't until 1937 that “surreal” began to exist on its own, said Sokolowski, who is a lexicographer.
Merriam-Webster first started tracking lookup trends in 1996, when the dictionary landed online. In 2001, after the 9/11 terror attacks, the Springfield, Massachusetts-based company noticed plenty of spikes in word lookups. The most enduring spike was for “surreal,” pointing to a broader meaning and greater usage, Sokolowski said.
Notable deaths in 2016
Notable deaths in 2016
Debbie Reynolds was an American actress, singer, businesswoman, film historian, and humanitarian. She died on December 28 in Los Angeles
Actress Carrie Fisher died on December 27 aged 60
Comedian and Actor Ricky Harris died on December 26 aged 54
British singer George Michael died on 25 December aged 53
Rick Parfitt OBE was an English musician, best known for being a singer, songwriter and rhythm guitarist in the rock band Status Quo. He died on December 24 in Marbella, Spain
Lord Jenkin of Roding died at the age of 90 on the 21 December
Rabbi Lionel Blue died on the 19 December
Zsa Zsa Gabor died on December 18
Leonard Cohen died on 7 November
Grand secretary of the Orange Order Drew Nelson died on 10 October aged 60 after a short illness
Aaron Pryor, the relentless junior welterweight died Sunday, Oct. 9, at the age of 60 at his home in Cincinnati after a long battle with heart disease
Polish Director Andrzej Wajda died on October 9, aged 90
Stylianos Pattakos has died following a stroke on 8th October. He was 103 years old.
Dickie Jeeps, was an English rugby union player who played for Northampton. He represented and captained both the England national rugby union team and the British Lions in the 1950s and 1960s. He died on 8th October. He was 84
15/42 Duke of Westminster
Billionaire landowner the Duke of Westminster, Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor has died on 9 August, aged 64
16/42 Christina Knudsen
Sir Roger Moore’s stepdaughter Christina Knudsen has died from cancer on 25 July at teh age of 47
17/42 Caroline Aherne
The actress Caroline Aherne has died from cancer on 2 July at the age of 52
18/42 Christina Grimmie
Christina Grimmie, 22, who was an American singer and songwriter, known for her participation in the NBC singing competition The Voice, was signing autographs at a concert venue in Orlando on 10 June when an assailant shot her. Grimmie was transported to a local hospital where she died from her wounds on 11 June
19/42 Kimbo Slice
Former UFC and Bellator MMA fighter Kimbo Slice died after being admitted to hospital in Florida on 6 June, aged 42
20/42 Muhammad Ali
The three-time former heavyweight world champion died after being admitted to hospital with a respiratory illness on 3 June, aged 74
21/42 Sally Brampton
Brampton who was the launch editor of the UK edition of Elle magazine has died on 10 May, aged 60
22/42 Billy Paul
The soul singer Billy Paul, who was best known for his single “Me and Mrs Jones”, has died on 24 April, aged 81
Noel Vasquez/Getty Images
Prince, the legendary musician, has been found dead at his Paisley Park recording studio on 21 April. He was 57
WWE icon Joan Laurer dies aged 45 after being found at California home on 20 April
25/42 Victoria Wood
The five-time Bafta-winning actress and comedian Victoria Wood has died on 20 April at her London home after a short illness with cancer. She was 62
26/42 David Gest
The entertainer and former husband of Liza Minnelli, David Gest has been found dead on 12 April in the Four Seasons hotel in Canary Warf, London. He was 62-years-old
27/42 Denise Robertson
Denise Robertson, an agony aunt on This Morning for over 30 years, has died on 1 April, aged 83
28/42 Zaha Hadid
Dame Zaha Hadid, the prominent architect best known for designs such as the London Olympic Aquatic Centre and the Guangzhou Opera House, has died of a heart attack on 31 March, aged 65
29/42 Ronnie Corbett
British entertainer Ronnie Corbett has passed away on 31 March at the age of 85
2014 Getty Images
30/42 Imre Kertesz
Hungarian writer and Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz, who won the 2002 Nobel Literature Prize, has died on 31 March, at the age of 86
31/42 Rob Ford
Rob Ford, the former controversial mayor of Toronto, has died following a battle with a rare form of cancer. The 46-year-old passed away at the Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto on 22 March
32/42 Joey Feek
Joey (left) passed away in March after a two-year cancer illness. She was part of country music duo, Joey + Rory, with her husband Rory (right)
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
33/42 Umberto Eco
Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco died 19 February 2016 aged 84
34/42 Harper Lee
Harper Lee, the American novelist known for writing 'To Kill a Mockingbird', died February 19, 2016 aged 89
2005 Getty Images
Vanity, pictured performing in 1983, died aged 57
36/42 Dave Mirra
The BMX legend's body found inside truck with gunshot wound after apparent suicide aged 41
37/42 Harry Harpham
The former miner became Sheffield Labour MP in May after many years as a local councillor. He died after succumbing to cancer, at the age of 61.
38/42 Dale Griffin
The Mott the Hoople drummer died on January 17, aged 67
39/42 Rene Angelil
Celine Dion's husband and manager Rene Angelil has lost his battle with cancer on 14 January, aged 73
2011 Getty Images
40/42 Alan Rickman
Legendary actor Alan Rickman has died on 14 January at the age of 69 after battle with pancreatic cancer. He is largely regarded as one of the most beloved British actors of our generation with roles in Love Actually, Die Hard, Michael Collins, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and an illustrious stage career
2015 Getty Images
41/42 Maurice White
The Earth, Wind & Fire founder died aged 74. The nine-piece band sold more than 90 million albums worldwide and won six Grammy awards
42/42 Lawrence Phillips
Former NFL star found dead in prison cell on 13 January in suspected suicide, aged 40
“We noticed the same thing after the Newtown shootings, after the Boston Marathon bombings, after Robin Williams' suicide,” he said. “Surreal has become this sort of word that people seek in moments of great shock and tragedy.”
Word folk like Sokolowski can't pinpoint exactly why people look words up online, but they know it's not only to check spellings or definitions. Right after 9/11, words that included “rubble” and “triage” spiked, he said. A couple days after that, more political words took over in relation to the tragedy, including “jingoism” and “terrorism.”
“But then we finally hit 'surreal,' so we had a concrete response, a political response and finally a philosophical response,” Sokolowski said. “That's what connects all these tragic events.”
Other words that made Merriam-Webster's Top 10 for 2016 due to significant spikes in lookups:
- Bigly: Yes, it's a word but a rare and sometimes archaic form of “big,” dating to around 1400, Sokolowski said. It made its way into the collective mind thanks to Trump, who was fond of using “big league” as an adverb but making it sound like bigly.
- Deplorable: Thank you, Hillary Clinton and your basket full of, though it's not technically a noun.
- Irregardless: It's considered a “nonstandard” word for regardless. It's best avoided, Sokolowski said. Irregardless was used during the calling of the last game of the World Series and its use was pilloried on social media, he said.
- Icon: This spike came after Prince's April 21 death, along with surreal. “It was just a moment of public mourning, the likes of which really happen very seldom,” Sokolowski said.
- Assumpsit: At the Democratic National Convention, Elizabeth Warren was introduced by one her former law students at Harvard, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts. He described how on his first day she asked him for the definition of assumpsit and he didn't know. “She said, 'Mr. Kennedy do you own a dictionary?' so everybody looked it up,” Sokolowski laughed. For the record: It's a legal term with Latin roots for a type of implied promise or contract. Kennedy didn't define it when he told the story.
- Faute de Mieux: Literally, this French phrase means “lack of something better or more desirable.” Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg used it in a brief concurring opinion in June to support a ruling that struck down a Texas law that would have closed all but nine abortion clinics in the state.
- In omnia paratus: A Latin phrase for “ready for all things.” Curiosity surfaced when Netflix revived Gilmore Girls recently, including reference to this famous chant during an episode in the original series where Rory is talked into leaping off a high platform as part of the initiation for a secret society at Yale. It became a rallying cry for fans of the show.
- Revenant: Leonardo DiCaprio played one in a movie of the same name, sending people scurrying to the dictionary. It describes “one that returns after death or a long absence.” It can be traced to the 1820s and while it sounds biblical, it is not, Sokolowski said.
- Feckless: It's how Vice President-elect Mike Pence described President Obama's foreign policy when he debated Democrat Tim Kaine. It means weak or worthless.