As It Happens

Surreal. Merriam-Webster's word of the year sums up 2016

Merriam-Webster dictionary chose “surreal” as their word of the year. The word is defined as “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream,” which would seem to suit 2016 quite well.
Spikes in searches for the meaning of “surreal” also peaked during the U.S. election with the single biggest spike happening on Nov. 9 — the day Donald Trump won the presidency. (The Associated Press/Getty/Wikimedia Commons/CBC)

Read Story Transcript

Merriam-Webster dictionary on Monday chose "surreal" as their word of the year.

Surreal is defined as "marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream," which would seem to suit 2016 quite well.

In order to come up with the choice, the company tracks number of "lookups" as well as year-over-year growth in searches of words on its website.

The word "surreal" was a common search this year — often in the wake of tragedies such as the March terror attack in Brussels, the Bastille Day massacre in Nice and the attempted coup in Turkey in July.

Spikes in searches for the meaning of "surreal" also peaked during the U.S. election with the biggest spike occurring on Nov. 9 — the day Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency. 

I believe there are words such as surreal or love that help us grapple with things difficult to understand and we try to put words to them.-  Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster,

"I think they all have shock and surprise in common, it's safe to say," Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster, told As it Happens host Carol Off.

"Surreal is a word we do associate with tragedy. It was one of the most looked up words after 9/11 and we have seen it subsequently after shootings in the United States, after the suicide of Robin Williams, after the Boston Marathon. In this case we also see it after the election, so it is clearly a word that people go to when they are very surprised and shocked by something in the news."

Sokolowski says that people go to the dictionary for more than just a definition or to check spelling.

"The Persistence of memory" is one of the most famous surrealist paintings. (Salvador Dalí/Wikimedia Commons)

"It makes me think of the beginning of philosophy, the beginning of thought," he said, adding that "love" is also a word they often see spike daily.

"I believe there are words such as surreal or love that help us grapple with things difficult to understand and we try to put words to them."

The word joins Oxford's word of the year: "post-truth", and Dictionary.com's pick of "Xenophobia" as a words that aptly describe the year that has often been described as nightmarish.

In November "fascism" was a top trending word. It was also frequently at the top last year in part, Sokolowski believes, due to the length of American elections. 

Origins of the word:

"Surreal" was born as a word around 1924, coming from the artistic movement of the early 20th century called Surrealism where European painters and poets wanted to stress the subconscious and nonrational significance of imagery. 

Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory," or as it is more commonly known "melting clocks" is one of he most famous examples.

Runners up:

Other words that almost made the cut are: "bigly" — a term attributed to President-elect Donald Trump, "deplorable" — a word Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton used to describe Trump supporters during the election and "icon."

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now