Between the CIA leak investigation, scandals in Congress, and disgraced athletes, 2005 had more than its fair share of ethical disappointment.
The result? "Integrity" was the most looked-up word of 2005, according to Merriam-Webster's online dictionary.
That comes as no surprise to many. The reflex to type a word into www.m-w.com is often prompted by the desire to understand an event and its context. That is one reason "tsunami" and "filibuster" also made the top 10 list.
In a year in which it seemed in short supply, integrity - defined as firm adherence to a code; incorruptibility - was in high demand.
"So many people have challenged other people's integrity this year," says Richard Katula, who teaches political rhetoric at Northeastern University in Boston. "I don't remember a time since the Nixon impeachment hearings when political discourse was so coarsened and crude."
The word "refugee" made it to No. 2, after hurricane Katrina necessitated the evacuation of thousands of Gulf Coast residents. The ensuing debate, over whether "refugee" was the proper term for displaced residents or whether it was in fact pejorative, summoned thousands of Americans to their dictionaries to decide for themselves. The word received more queries in one month than most words in an entire year.
Less-weighty scenarios shaped this year's list, too. Fingers rushed to type in the word "insipid" after the adjective was uttered on "American Idol."
For those in the word business, the public's effort to understand the verbal signs of the times is promising.
"It shows that the English-speaking population is not the bunch of illiterate dolts that some critics like to portray," says John Morse, president of Merriam- Webster in Springfield, Mass. "Dictionarymakers always had a pretty good sense of what words are used most often ... but never really knew what words are looked up most often."
Along with ubiquitous, irony, and metaphor - words that sit at the sweet spot of complexity and curiosity - integrity has traditionally hovered near the top of Webster's hit parade.
But the noun moved to the front of the pack in recent years, reflecting, perhaps, its conspicuous absence from some committee rooms, boardrooms, locker rooms, and classrooms across America.
In Dr. Katula's class, the word integrity has become central to debate, especially with the overload of information today. "Students spend so much time on the Internet, they are constantly asking what information has integrity," he says.
For those in the integrity business, the news comes as both good and bad. Tim Dodd, the executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University in Durham, N.C., says he wrote a colleague an e-mail when he found out that his area of expertise was the most popular word of 2005: In all honesty, I'm not sure whether I'm heartened or depressed by this finding, he wrote.
It's heartening, he explains later, that people are curious enough about its significance to look it up. But it's sobering, he adds, that they need to look up integrity in the first place.
1. integrity n. firm adherence to a code, especially moral or artistic values; incorruptibility.
2. refugee n. one that flees; especially a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution.
3. contempt n. willful disobedience to or open disrespect of a court, judge or legislative body.
4. filibuster n. the use of extreme dilatory tactics in an attempt to delay or prevent action, especially in a legislative assembly.
5. insipid adj. lacking in qualities that interest, stimulate or challenge; dull, flat.
6. tsunami n. a great sea wave produced especially by submarine earth movement or volcanic eruption.
7. pandemic n. occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population.
8. conclave n. a private meeting or secret assembly, especially a meeting of Roman Catholic cardinals secluded continuously while choosing a pope.
9. levee n. an embankment for preventing flooding; a continuous dike or ridge (as of earth) for confining the irrigation areas of land to be flooded.
10: inept n. generally incompetent; bungling.