Broadcast: December 29, 2004 Adam Phillips looks back at the words that most intrigued users of Merriam-Webster's online dictionary over the past 12 months.
AP: For years, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary has been one of the most popular and authoritative dictionaries of the American language in use -- even when it was just in book form. Today, the company's online dictionary is visited hundreds of thousands of times each month over the Internet. Because its website records the words people want to know, Merriam-Webster is able to compile a ranking of what's hot and what's not in American speech. Peter Sokolowski is an editor there.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: "The most commonly looked up words every day of the year are words that are often easily confused or have definition that are a little bit tricky - words like paradigm, which means the plan or a typical example of something, or serendipity, which means a fortunate or lucky event or moment. Or words that are easily confused with each other such as affect and effect, which are both nouns and verbs."
Merriam-Webster has just announced 2004's ten most frequently looked-up words. Mr. Sokolowski says that, taken together, they offer a sense of what really mattered in the public sphere.
The news from Iraq, for example, prompted many people to look up the word insurgent. It means "a person who revolts against civil authority or an established government; especially a rebel not recognized as a belligerent." Insurgent ranked number four on the Merriam- Webster list. The editor notes that U.S. domestic news also played a big role in 2004.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: "We have the word incumbent which means a person who holds an office -- a political office -- and the world electoral, which refers to the process of electing a public official. And those two words obviously were very popular this year because of the American presidential election."
Words for natural phenomena were among the big winners this year. Peter Sokolowski points to cicada, which is the type of insect that infested eastern North America this past summer, and hurricane -- 2004's fifth most popular "look-up" word. PETER SOKOLOWSKI: "That is a word that everyone knows the meaning of. It is a storm -- a very violent storm -- of a kind that is typically found in the Atlantic Ocean. And it affected America particularly this past year."
Mr. Sokolowski offers two reasons why so many people might have looked up this quite familiar word.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: "One is that it is spelled with two R's, and often, words that have two consonants next to each other are words that people are a little insecure about the spelling. Part of the problem with English is, of course, that we do not have an orthographic pronunciation, which is to say that words are not always pronounced the way they are spelled. That, right there, is a huge part of why people look up words.
And also I think people like the definition of hurricane because it gives the actual wind speed that a hurricane requires, [which is] 119 kilometers an hour or greater. So that is an official definition, and I think that's one reason people look the word up."
Peloton, a French word meaning the main body of riders in a bicycle race, clocked in at number seven on Merriam-Webster's list in 2004. Mr. Sokolowski says that's due to Lance Armstrong, the American cyclist who won the Tour de France race again this year.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: "What is interesting about peloton is, it's the second time that word has come into English in 300 years. In the 1600s, the word platoon entered English - to mean a group of men, often soldiers. And that word is a very popular English word, especially in military circles. And now, peloton has come into English. They are really the same word but with different meanings."
The number one most popular word on the Merriam Webster site was blog. It's one of a host of new Internet and computer-related words that are now officially mainstream. PETER SOKOLOWSKI: "And blog is the latest. In fact, it's the newest in the dictionary. Blog is short for Web log -- that is, Internet log. And we define it as 'a website that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer.'
"Blog really entered the language in 1999. That's the first time we found the word used in print. But then we had to wait and see if that word would become very generally accepted and understood, and this past year, especially with the Presidential election and the folks who wrote blogs for political commentary, they found themselves being reported in the mainstream press. That's when the word got into the dictionary. It's just going in now. It'll be in print in the spring."
Other words that made the top ten list include partisan, meaning 'a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause or person," and sovereignty, meaning "supreme power, especially over a body politic" or "freedom from external control."
The biggest surprise on the top ten list may be defenestration, which means "a throwing of a person or thing out of a window." Listeners are free to speculate for themselves about why that word was so popular in 2004. Editor Peter Sokolowski did not say.
For Wordmaster, this is Adam Phillips reporting from New York.