Merriam-Webster names ‘surreal’ its word of the year

Early last century, a group of artists used ‘surrealism’ to describe the content of their dream-like expressions. Now, folks are using it to characterize extraordinary world events.

Was 2016 unbelievable?

Merriam-Webster editors say “yes” and are calling surreal their word of the year:

Merriam-Webster’s definition of surreal is: “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream.” It’s a relatively new word in English, only dating back to the 1930s, derived from descriptions of the artistic movement of the early 1900s known as surrealism.

Editors base their annual decision on something many marketers can relate to—number of clicks. From Merriam-Webster’s website:

Surreal is Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year because it was looked up significantly more frequently by users in 2016 than it was in previous years, and because there were multiple occasions on which this word was the one clearly driving people to their dictionary.

When it comes to frequent dictionary searches, the organization’s editor at large, Peter Sokolowski, says there are two kinds of “high-volume” lookups:

Perennial words that are looked up frequently day-in-day-out, and words that show spikes of interest according to news events—politics, pop culture, sports… anything that reaches a big audience.)

Many people turn to the dictionary not just for definitions or the ideas behind them, but for grammar, too, Sokolowski says.

He adds:

People came back over and over again in response to different events. [Our word of the year] is a look at 2016 in terms of what sent us to the dictionary.

Here’s insight on which worldwide events led to searches of surreal:

Beginning with the Brussels terror attacks in March, major spikes included the days following the coup attempt in Turkey and the terrorist attack in Nice, with the largest spike in lookups for surreal following the U.S. election in November.

Surreal is looked up spontaneously in moments of both tragedy and surprise, whether or not it is used in speeches or articles. This year, other spikes corresponded to a variety of events, from to Prince’s death, to the Pulse shooting in Orlando; from the Brexit vote to commentary about the presidential debates.

Surreal was also used in its original sense, referring to incongruous or unrealistic artistic expression, in reviews for the movie “The Lobster.”

In other words…

Although surreal saw the most dictionary searches in 2016, there were a few close contenders. Following the Chicago Cubs’ World Series championship, the team’s first since 1908, a broadcaster used the “non-standard word irregardless.”

Although it’s “indeed a real word,” Sokolowski advises strongly against using it. Use regardless instead, he says.

Here are nine more notable words that sent people to their dictionaries in 2016:

Whether you’re writing your communications thesis on how Salvador Dalí’s works relate to public relations, or you’re trying to differentiate between dreams and reality, 2016’s word of the year could fit your needs. Just make sure you look it up in a dictionary first.

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