A gender neutral sign is posted outside a bathroom at Oval Park Grill in Durham, N.C. (Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

Debate over transgender rights has been building for a long time, but the Obama administration’s directive to public schools on how to accommodate transgender students appears to have pushed public interest to new heights.

Dictionary experts at Merriam-Webster Inc. said searches on its website for “transgender” surged more than 630 percent above average on Friday, hours after news broke that the federal government would tell schools that they must allow transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identities.

“People clearly want to have a better handle on what the word actually means,” said Emily Brewster, an associate editor for Merriam-Webster who wrote about the spike on the company’s website.

“When it comes down to the federal government giving a directive like this to all the public schools in the nation, people are very interested in knowing what exactly this is about,” she said.

Transgender is not a new term; it’s been around since at least 1970, according to Merriam-Webster, which says the word refers to a person “who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person’s sex at birth.”

Brewster said it’s not unusual to see intense, sudden interest in words that are in the news. For example, “presumptive” spiked on May 4, she said, the day after Donald Trump won the GOP presidential primary in Indiana and became widely regarded as the party’s presumptive nominee.

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