The Word of the Year for 2016

Each year, several major lexicographers release their word of the year—the term that, among the most frequently looked-up words during the previous twelve months, has most prominently captured the zeitgeist. This post discusses the 2016 selections.

Merriam-Webster selected surreal, a word apropos for a year in which various seemingly irrational, inexplicable events occurred. The dictionary company announced that a significant spike in the number of people who looked up the word occurred three times during the year, including after Election Day in the United States.

Surreal was coined about a hundred years ago by a group of artists responding to Sigmund Freud’s recent explication of the concept of the unconscious mind; they called their movement surrealism, and the art the surrealists produced was marked by fantastic and incongruous imagery or elements. The prefix sur-, meaning “above” or “over,” is seen in other words such as surname (“beyond name”) and surrender (“give over”).

Among the other words Merriam-Webster noted as being frequently looked up during the year include revenant, meaning “one who returns”; the attention was prompted by its use in the title of a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a man left for dead who seeks vengeance onimages7 those who abandoned him.

Another is feckless, meaning “ineffective” or “irresponsible.” Derived from the Scots word feck, an alteration of effect, the word gained attention when Mike Pence, the US vice president–elect, uttered it in a debate against his Democratic Party rival, Tim Kaine. (Feck and feckful are now obsolete, and feckless is rare.)

Icon, ultimately from the Greek verb eikenai, meaning “resemble,” was yet another; the death of the musician who (usually) called himself Prince (born Prince Rogers Nelson) prompted lookups for this word meaning “idol” or “symbol.” (Interestingly, for a time he employed a glyph, or symbol, in place of his name.) Words with icon as a root include iconography, meaning “depiction of icons,” and iconoclast, meaning “destroyer of icons.”

The Oxford English Dictionary chose as its Word of the Year post-truth, signifying the growing trend toward subordination of objective truth to appeals to emotion and personal belief when weighing decisions. (In American English, the prefix post is usually not hyphenated, but British English tends to retain the hyphen in such usage, and usage of this word in the United States tends to follow that style.)

Meanwhile, the word selected by to represent the preceding year is xenophobia, meaning “fear or hatred of strangers or the unknown.” (In Greek, xenos means “stranger”—but also “guest”—and phobia is derived from the Greek word phobos, meaning “fear.”)

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