Was 2016 a dream or a nightmare?
Try something in between: “surreal,” which is Merriam-Webster’s word of the year, unveiled Monday.
Meaning “unbelievable, fantastic,” the word joins Oxford’s “post-truth” as the year’s top choices.
“It just seems like one of those years,” said Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor at large.
The company tracks year-over-year growth and spikes in lookups of words on its website to come up with the top choice. This time around, there were many periods of interest in “surreal” throughout the year, often after a tragedy, Sokolowski said.
Major spikes came after the Brussels terrorist attack in March and again in July, after the Bastille Day massacre in Nice. Both received huge attention around the globe and had many in the media reaching for “surreal” to describe both the physical scenes and the “mental landscapes,” Sokolowski said.
The single biggest spike in lookups came in November, he said, specifically November 9, the day Donald Trump went from candidate to president-elect.
The word “surreal” didn’t exist until around 1924, after a group of European poets, painters and filmmakers founded a movement they called Surrealism. They sought to access the truths of the unconscious mind by breaking down rational thought.
It wasn’t until 1937 that “surreal” began to exist on its own, said Sokolowski.
Merriam-Webster first started tracking lookup trends in 1996, when the dictionary landed online. In 2001, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Springfield, Massachusetts-based company noticed plenty of spikes in word lookups. The most enduring spike was for “surreal,” pointing to a broader meaning and greater usage, Sokolowski said.
“Surreal has become this sort of word that people seek in moments of great shock and tragedy,” he said.
Other words that made Merriam-Webster’s Top 10 for 2016 due to significant spikes in lookups:
BIGLY: Yes, it’s a word but a rare and sometimes archaic form of “big,” dating to around 1400, Sokolowski said. It made its way into the collective mind thanks to Trump, who was fond of using the expression “big league” but making it sound like bigly.
DEPLORABLE: Thank you, Hillary Clinton and your basket full of, though it’s not technically a noun.
IRREGARDLESS: It’s considered a “nonstandard” word for regardless. It’s best avoided, Sokolowski said. Irregardless was used during the calling of the last game of the World Series and its use was pilloried on social media, he said.
ICON: This spike came after Prince’s April 21 death, along with surreal. “It was just a moment of public mourning, the likes of which really happen very seldom,” Sokolowski said.
REVENANT: Leonardo DiCaprio played one in a movie of the same name, sending people scurrying to the dictionary. It describes “one that returns after death or a long absence.” It can be traced to the 1820s, and while it sounds biblical, it is not, Sokolowski said.
FECKLESS: It’s how Vice President-elect Mike Pence described President Obama’s foreign policy when he debated Democrat Tim Kaine. It means weak or worthless.