Dictionary searches for 'fascism' and 'xenophobe' spike after election

Merriam-Webster found searches for certain words often mentioned by President-elect Donald Trump or used to describe him have been trending since the elections.

Jose Luis Magana/AP/File
A protester holds a banner during a march in downtown Washington in opposition of President-elect Donald Trump on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016. Tens of thousands of people marched in streets across the United States on Saturday, staging the fourth day of protests against Trump's surprise victory as president.

After the election last Tuesday, Merriam-Webster found that the same words have been trending in searches on its online dictionary for almost a week.

Most of the words on the list have been uttered by President-elect Donald Trump in his speeches or are phrases frequently used to describe Mr. Trump, as the dictionary’s Trend Watch articles pointed out. For example, searches for “fascism,” a popular word among Trump's critics, increased more than 400 percent since last year.

With the aid of the internet, the ease at which one can search up “big words” spewed by politicians and analysts is unprecedented these days, and the trends in curiosity almost mirror current events. Trump, with his recent successful presidential bid, understandably commands interest among the public this week. But does the phenomena hint at a potential rise in civic participation, as people can more easily unpack political information with the use of such search tools?

“People come to the dictionary for many reasons,” Peter Sokolowski, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster, told Quartz back in July. “You can see how we’re processing the news of the week ...These searches do not usually indicate ignorance, they indicate interest.”

The biggest spikes over the last year were “xenophobe,” which saw a 1,980 percent rise, and “bigot,” with a 500 percent rise, followed by “fascism,” with a 450 percent increase, as reported by USA Today. Brief spikes have also been seen after President Obama used “pragmatic” and “gregarious” to describe Trump in a recent press conference, or when Clinton said “debunk” during a presidential debate in October. Vice-President Joe Biden had his day of fame in Merriam-Webster when he said “malarkey” back in July.

Dictionary searches have reflected current events since Merriam-Webster first went online in the late 1990s, Mr. Sokolowski tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. Princess Diana’s death, the Clinton impeachment, and the 9/11 attacks are among some events that spurred widespread curiosity about words ranging from “paparazzi” to “surreal.” Movie releases also cause a rise in searches for particular words.

“We didn’t know the dictionary would become this prism to view the news,” he says. “The dictionary lookups represent what people are thinking.”

In a series of Tweets this week, Sokolowski argued that “curiosity is not ignorance”: there are many reasons why adults check on words. It could be to double-check spellings – fascism, for instance, is notoriously tough to spell – or it might be that people want to make sure they know what the word really means in various contexts.

But whether the interest can translate to the actual political activity of voting or activism, such as participating in demonstrations, is another issue, some experts point out. The question is particularly pertinent as the United States has always had low voter turnout, compared to other developed countries.

“When we see people going online, doing searches on relevant topics, that can be an indication of people willing to get involved in advocacy, but it has not in the past translated to people voting,” Bruce Bimber, the chair of the department of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “The people who are most likely to look up public affair terms are people who are already interested in politics.”

Some others see it in a more positive light. As political news increasingly worms its way into social media, it may expose political information to those who may not have originally felt inclined to seek it out by themselves, Lauren Copeland, an assistant professor of political science at Baldwin Wallace University, tells the Monitor.

For Sokolowski, the rise in interest is itself a good start for understanding.

Dictionary.com also told USA Today that it has seen a spike in lookups for similar words, although “electoral vote” and “popular vote” had the most increases in the past week.

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