When we’re searching for meaning, we know where to go: the dictionary.
The word nerds at Merriam-Webster have been tracking our lookups since the dictionary went digital in 1996. “No one has looked at dictionary data longer than me,” Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster editor at large, told me by phone in March. He knows why words spike when they do: because they’re shoved to the front of the collective consciousness by the news cycle or an utterance from a high-profile person; for instance, “malarkey” pops up whenever Joe Biden drops it in a debate. And he knows why some words, such as “paradigm” and “integrity,” are evergreen: because they’re broad, abstract concepts that leave us scrabbling for specificity and certainty.
Major news events tend to drive definition searches. But what Sokolowski observed as the novel coronavirus outbreak spread in the United States defied expectations. “It’s completely without precedent to see all of the top lookups all based on the same story,” he said. “ ‘Covid-19’ immediately jumped to the top of the list. We’ve never seen that.”
The top definition searches from March 16 to 19, in order, after “covid-19”: “corona,” “pandemic,” “social distancing,” “self-quarantine,” “lockdown,” “furlough,” “socialism,” “novel,” “draconian,” “adrenochrome” (which, Sokolowski cautioned, is from a conspiracy theory “that has nothing to do with the actual science”), “community spread,” “self-isolation” and “trust.” That last word had been used in a Gallup poll question about faith in the government to handle this crisis and, the day we spoke, appeared in Gallup’s headline on the results: “Trust in Government Lacking on COVID-19’s Frontlines.”
After “trust” came “apocalypse,” then “epidemic,” then “asymptomatic” and then “esprit de corps,” which President Trump used during a press briefing.
The way Sokolowski sees it, coronavirus-era dictionary searches are falling into five major categories: disease terms (“coronavirus”); prevention terms (“social distancing”); public response terms (like “cancel,” “hunker down” and “postpone,” all of which were spiking in mid-March); policy response terms such as “triage,” “draconian” and “lockdown”; and economic or insurance consequences, like “force majeure,” “recession” and “hoarding.”
I offered a sixth category: existential dread. Sokolowksi confirmed this hunch. Words like “apocalypse,” “stress” and “unprecedented” are all on the rise, as is one of his favorites: “surreal.”
For Merriam-Webster, “surreal” “has a special place in our data, because it was the number one word looked up after 9/11,” Sokolowski told me. “And that’s an interesting case because, unlike so many other words, it was not provoked either by the event or by a newsmaker or the coverage.” In the dictionary business, that’s called a “spontaneous lookup.” Without coordinating with one another or taking our cues from a shared source, we all reacted to a formative horror with the same sensation, one we all sought to define.
“Surreal” was also the top looked-up word after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, and after Robin Williams’s death by suicide in 2014. (The definition, by the way: “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream.”) In 2016, it was deemed Merriam-Webster’s word of the year following its use in coverage of terrorist attacks in Brussels in March and Nice, France, in July; after the attempted coup in Turkey over the summer; and, in its largest spike of the year, after the U.S. presidential election. “This is clearly the word that we associate with a great shock and tragedy,” Sokolowski said. “And it’s a purely organic thing.”
Traditionally, Merriam-Webster admits new words to its ranks at only a few appointed times of the year. But amid coronavirus fear and yearning, it made an exception and had “this extraordinary release of a couple dozen words,” all of which are related to the pandemic, on March 18. (Among them were “social distancing,” “super-spreader,” “index case” and “self-quarantine.”)
The record for the coinage of a term and its addition to the dictionary, though, “has clearly been set by ‘covid-19,’ ” Sokolowski said; it took only six weeks. The previous record was three years.
Though Sokolowski’s tweets about the words being searched get some derisive comments — saying the searchers are dumb, can’t spell, or both — he is heartened to see that people still trust and turn to the dictionary. “Words matter,” he told me. “And when people are checking themselves, I think that’s a good sign. It shows that people are thinking. Curiosity is the only thing we can accurately measure. And curiosity, I think, is the opposite of ignorance.”
Jessica M. Goldstein is a writer in Washington.