Want to Know What Words People Are Looking Up?

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Slate's Culture Blog
June 1 2012 10:57 AM

Follow Friday: What Twitter Can Teach Us About Language

What triggers people to look up a word? A couple weeks back, it was a comment from a Romney aide, who described an anti-Bain TV ad put out by the Obama camp as “gibberish.” That sent many people to their online dictionaries to track down the precise definition of that word.

How do I know this? I got a guy on Twitter.

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Peter Sokolowski is a lexicographer and an Editor-at-Large at Merriam-Webster. The online version of the dictionary tracks spikes in words lookups, which can often be traced to current news stories. His tweets noting these spikes punctuate my very newsy Twitter feed, adding an always interesting perspective on the way the news of the day affects its readers.

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In an email, Sokolowski cited the death of Michael Jackson in 2009 as a particularly interesting example of how news-related word searches can show how large numbers of people use and understand (or don’t understand) words. Stricken, resuscitate, condolences, icon, R.I.P., and emaciated were all looked up in huge numbers immediately following Jackson’s death. Those six terms “tell a big part of the story all by themselves,” he told me.

And some word lookups speak to the importance of definitions in shaping how we understand our world. Take “marriage,” for instance, which spiked again during the series of equal marriage endorsements that led to Obama’s public support for the idea. 

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1 a (1) : the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law (2) : the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage <same-sex marriage> b : the mutual relation of married persons : wedlock c : the institution whereby individuals are joined in a marriage

The split definition between hetero- and homosexual marriage is, according to Sokolowski, because the different senses of the definition were added in historical order. But in reading his responses to a follower curious about the politics of definition, one begins to get a sense of just how challenging it is to define a word that has taken on profound political implications.

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Twitter is a democratizing force in many ways, providing a platform for voices who might not otherwise find one. Seeing those who define the very words we use join that conversation demonstrates fairly dramatically just how negotiated, fluid, and contested our use of language is.

Abby Ohlheiser is a Slate contributor.

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