As It Happens

Merriam-Webster's top U.S. election word searches: Bigly, deplorables, braggadocious

Merriam-Webster has been keeping track of the most -searched words during this 2016 presidential election campaign, including "democracy." The dictionary's editor-at-large parses their meaning and use.
Peter Sokolowski is the editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster who has been watching all election vocabulary trends. (Peter Sokolowski)

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The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign may be coming to an end today, but its vocabulary is here to stay. Turns out that whenever someone would say something strange, inexplicable or nonsensical, voters turned to the dictionary for help. 

The folks at Merriam-Webster Dictionary have been keeping track of all word searches, uses and misuses by the candidates and their campaigns.

Peter Sokolowski is the editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster and he's been making note of all election-related vocabulary. 

Carol Off: What are the election words that really stand out for you?

Peter Sokolowski: This year there are words that have had individual spikes from an individual utterance. For example, when Bernie Sanders said "equivocate" when he was talking about minimum wage or when President Obama talked about the word "populist" in describing Donald Trump's feelings. Also, the word "sacrifice," when Mr. Khan, the father of a U.S. soldier, used that term during the Democratic convention. But really the big spikes seem to come from "deplorable," which was used by Hillary Clinton, and "big league" or "bigly" — take your pick — from Donald Trump.

CO: People have said he is saying "bigly," but what do you think he is actually saying?

PS: Well, he is saying "big league." In fact, some linguists did use a spectrometer to determine that he did in fact close he glottal stop and create a "g" at the end of that. But part of our problem with that term is that "big league" is used to describe a noun or an adjective — a big league candidate, for example — but Trump is clearly using it as an adverb and we, as English speakers, tend to hear adverbs with that "l-y" ending. So I think there is a sort of gravitational pull toward "bigly."

CO: But there is a word "bigly," is there not?

PS: Absolutely, we do enter it as what we call a run-on entry for "big."

CO: Now you mention "deplorable," but it was used as a plural, "deplorables," by Hillary Clinton. Is that such a word?

PS: Well, as it happens, we don't enter "deplorable" as a noun and I think that's one of the interesting things about her use. We enter it as an adjective and, sure enough, people probably heard that something was off, something was missing.

CO: Did people look up "braggadocious"?

PS: They sure did. Braggadocious isn't in the dictionary. It's an old form of "braggadocio," which is in the dictionary. So, again, Donald Trump used what you might call an archaic form of that term.

CO: There is one word that is just too sad to be funny and that is when we heard from Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, asking what Aleppo is. What kind of searches did you get for that?

PS: Yes, there's a combining form that's a "l-e-p-o" and, of course, people didn't know what they were looking up. There is "lepo" that has to do with "lepocyte," which is a rind or a husk. People looked up "l-e-p-o" and that's what they got. But that does show that people are educated by the candidates.

CO: I understand you had a 9,000 percent surge of people looking up the word "demagogue"?

PS: Demagogue has been one of those words that started way back to the Republican primary. It was a term used by Republicans who were competing with Donald Trump and it has risen all year long. This doesn't mean that the word has been uttered frequently or that is it always in the headlines, but the word has certainly been on people's minds.

CO: Also, oddly enough, "democracy"?

PS: Exactly. We see that there are certain cyclical words like "presumptive" or "entitlement" that we expect during a presidential election. For example, today we see the word "ballot" and "election" are in the top ten at this hour. I don't always assume that curiosity means ignorance. There's a lot of reason to look up a word. You may want to know about its roots or a very subtle element of its definition.


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