Richard Drew/Associated Press
Richard Drew/Associated Press
NEW YORK – Thanks to the election, socialism and capitalism are forever wed as Merriam-Webster’s most looked-up words of 2012.
Traffic for the unlikely pair on the company’s website about doubled this year from the year before as the health-care debate heated up and discussion intensified about “American capitalism” versus “European socialism,” said the editor at large, Peter Sokolowski.
The choice revealed Wednesday was “kind of a no-brainer,” he said. The side-by-side interest among political candidates and around kitchen tables prompted the dictionary editors to settle on two words of the year rather than one for the first time since the accolade began in 2003.
“They’re words that sort of encapsulate the zeitgeist. They’re words that are in the national conversation,” said Sokolowski from company headquarters in Springfield, Mass. “The thing about an election year is it generates a huge amount of very specific interest.”
Democracy, globalization, marriage and bigot – all touched by politics – made the Top 10, in no particular order. The latter two were driven in part by the fight for same-sex marriage acceptance.
Last year’s word of the year was austerity. Before that, it was pragmatic. Other words in the leading dictionary maker’s Top 10 for 2012 were politically motivated.
Harken back to Oct. 11, when Vice President Joe Biden tangled with Mitt Romney running mate Paul Ryan in a televised debate focused on foreign policy – terror attacks, defense spending and war, to be specific.
“With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey,” Biden said during a particularly tough row with Ryan. The mention sent look-ups of malarkey soaring on Merriam-webster.com, Sokolowski said, adding: “Clearly a one-week wonder, but what a week!”
Malarkey, with the alternative spelling of “y” at the end, is of unknown origin, but Merriam-Webster surmises it’s more Irish-American than Irish, tracing it to newspaper references as far back as 1929.
Beyond “nonsense,” malarkey can mean “insincere or pretentious talk or writing designed to impress one and usually to distract attention from ulterior motives or actual conditions,” Sokolowski said.
“That’s exactly what Joe Biden was saying. Very precise,” especially in conversation with another Irish-American, Sokolowski said. “He chose a word that resonated with the public, I think in part because it really resonated with him. It made perfect sense for this man to use this word in this moment.”
An interesting election-related phenom, to be sure, but malarkey is no dead Big Bird or “binders full of women” – two Romneyisms from the defeated candidate’s televised matchups with Obama that evoked another of Merriam-Webster’s Top 10 – meme.
While malarkey’s history is shaded, meme’s roots are easily traced to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, a Brit who coined the term for a unit of cultural inheritance, not unlike genes and DNA. The retired professor at the University of Oxford made up the word in 1976 for The Selfish Gene, a book he published light years before the Internet and social media’s capacity to take memes viral.
Sokolowski said traffic for the word meme more than doubled this year over 2011, with dramatic spikes pegged to political-related subjects that included Romney’s Big Bird and binders remarks, social media shares of images pegged to Hillary Rodham Clinton texting and Obama’s “horses and bayonets” debate rebuke of Romney in an exchange over the size of the Navy.
Dawkins, reached at home in Oxford, was tickled by the dictionary shoutout.
“I’m very pleased that it’s one of the 10 words that got picked out,” he said. “I’m delighted. I hope it may bring more people to understand something about evolution.”
The book in which he used meme for the first time is mostly about the gene as the primary unit of natural selection, or the Darwinian idea that only the strongest survive. In the last chapter, he said, he wanted to describe some sort of cultural replicator.
And he wanted a word that sounded like “gene,” so he took a twist on the Greek mimeme, which is the origin of “mime” and “mimesis,” a scientific term meaning imitation.
“It’s a very clever coinage,” lauded the lexicographer Sokolowski.
Other words in Merriam-Webster’s Top 10 for 2012:
Touche, thanks in part to “Survivor” contestant Kat Edorsson misusing the word to mean “tough luck” rather than “point well made,” before she was voted off the island in May. Look-ups at Merriam-webster.com were up sevenfold this year over 2011.
Schadenfreude, made up of the German words for “damage” and “joy,” meaning taking pleasure in the misery of others, was used broadly in the media after the election. Look-ups increased 75 percent. The word in English dates to 1895.
Professionalism, up 12 percent this year over last. Sokolowski suspects the bump might have been attributable to the bad economy and more job seekers, or a knowing “glimpse into what qualities people value.”