USA Society First Look

Why 'surreal' is Merriam-Webster's word of the year

After the 2016 presidential election, there was a surge of people looking online to determine the meaning of 'surreal.'

"Surreal" is Merriam-Webster's word of 2016 based on spikes in lookups.
Bebeto Matthews/AP | Caption

Merriam-Webster has chosen a word to sum up odd chain of events that made this year one to remember: “surreal.”  

From the unexpected victory of President-elect Donald Trump to traumatic terrorist attacks in Nice, France, and Orlando to the sudden deaths of beloved celebrities like Prince and David Bowie, 2016 has delivered a series of both bizarre and heartbreaking events that in some instances can only be described as surreal, meaning “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream," or "unbelievable, fantastic," according to Merriam-Webster’s definition.

And that has led people to increasingly turn to the word. Merriam-Webster tracks the entries people search from year to year, noticing spikes and looking to concurring news events in an effort to explain the trends. In 2016, the word “surreal” spiked several times, usually following a tragedy or event that proves difficult to articulate or believe.

"It just seems like one of those years," Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster's editor at large, told the Associated Press. "We noticed the same thing after the Newtown shootings, after the Boston Marathon bombings, after Robin Williams' suicide. Surreal has become this sort of word that people seek in moments of great shock and tragedy."

The highest spike came on Nov. 9 and 10, the two days following the presidential election, Mr. Sokolowski told The Wall Street Journal.

The dictionary tracks trends in two ways: the first being words that are searched frequently and daily, and the second by following searches that spike as a reflection of news and pop culture. The latter gives Merriam-Webster a glimpse into what people are thinking about said events, the company said in a statement.

"Surreal" isn’t alone as an off-kilter choice when summing up the year in just a few syllables. Oxford selected “post-truth,” and Dictionary.com revealed that "xenophobia" was one of the most widely searched terms, showing the influence Mr. Trump’s unconventional campaign has had on Americans.  

The world "surreal" is less than 100 years old itself, defined sometime after a group of European artists founded the Surrealism movement, seeking to break down rational thought through unconventional expression. By 1937, the word had come to stand on its own.

In 2015, the dictionary company selected “ism” as the word of the year, noting the importance of concepts like socialism, feminism, and fascism as they became more commonly used in the early months of the election.

Among the top contenders for Merriam-Webster’s word of 2016 were “deplorable,” “bigly,” and “icon.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.