What makes us look up a word?
We tend to assume that the words people look up are only the hard ones—SAT vocabulary, tricky spellings, jargon used mostly by professors. Adults tell children who ask what a word means to look it up, and it's a great habit to instill in young people, but the reasons adults themselves use a dictionary aren't quite so simple. People are complicated. So is language.
When I reported on Twitter during the 2012 presidential debates that debate and moderator were spiking in lookups at Merriam-Webster.com, some people responded with disdain and despair at the ignorance that this presumed weakness of vocabulary apparently revealed. But we shouldn’t be so quick to judge others by the words they look up: looking up a word is a profoundly private act, and there are many reasons—linguistic and extralinguistic—to consult a dictionary.
Let's think about this. Most of us look up words while writing; whether it's a report or a blog post, a memo or an email, we check ourselves. And it turns out we're much more likely to look up words we know, including some that are only on the edge of our active vocabulary—words we've seen or heard but don't actually use—than those we don’t.
Dictionary lookup data reveals a great deal about what sends us to the dictionary. (Merriam-Webster has a lot of lookup data. On our website and our app, the combined lookups come to about 200 million page views per month.) Lookups seem to have one of two very different motivations: what's troublesome about English in general or what people are thinking about at a given moment.
Troublesome words are looked up day in and day out, year after year, because of some difficulty inherent in the words themselves. Usage, spelling, pronunciation, and slippery meanings are the usual suspects. Affect and effect are always near the top of the list, but words such as pragmatic, irony, esoteric, and paradigm are perennials as well. The variant spelling comradery is very high on a daily basis (with the traditional spelling camaraderie usually not far behind). And the entry for niche, one of this year's top ten lookups, is consulted because of insecurity about its pronunciation.
Sudden trends of interest in words are usually triggered by news stories. Events such as the Biden-Ryan vice-presidential debate (malarkey) or the death of Nelson Mandela (apartheid) are good examples. Many looked up typhoon when disaster struck the Philippines; users reported that they were seeking to know the difference between a typhoon and a hurricane—in other words, extralinguistic information about wind speeds and geography.
But there are other occasions for lookups as well. Logophiles frequently look up a familiar word just to learn its origin. The urge to know an etymology can come on suddenly, after all, and be a mental itch that demands to be scratched. And sometimes we turn to the dictionary in a more contemplative mood; love is often among the most looked-up words, and surely not for spelling.
At Merriam-Webster, our Word of the Year is the one that has shown the most notable increase in lookups from previous years. Often it encapsulates a story, as bailout did for 2008 or austerity for 2010. But in 2013 there was no single major story, such as a financial crash or a presidential election, that drove lookups. Instead, the word that stood out this year was one for which lookups seemed to derive from a quieter but no less important story: science.
Perhaps it's surprising that such a broad and general term was the subject of so much curiosity—176 percent more lookups this year than last. What explains it? Well, we're not really sure. We at Merriam-Webster are better at reading data than reading minds, though it's apparent that no single story or event triggered this interest. However, a deep national conversation about how science influences our lives is evidently under way. Just consider some recent discussions about our faith in science and about faith and science, not to mention how science is covered, presented, and understood by the public. From climate change to water on Mars to DNA confirmation of the bones of Richard III, this has been a year in which science writers have been penning a great number of headlines and articles that attempt to explain recondite research.
The connection between technical and popular presentation of scientific research was itself the subject of some debate this year. 2013 Nobel laureate Randy Schekman raised questions about how scientific journals measure the influence and importance of articles, complaining that flashy coverage of certain topics can ultimately undermine valuable research on others. And best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell was accused of putting "the story first and the science second" in a review of his latest book (to which he responded that the critic should "calm down").
These questions—about whether science writing forfeits objectivity or rigor for the sake of sizzle—are essential to an understanding of how the broader culture perceives the work of scientists and go to the heart of how we disseminate and absorb information. And since the media loves no story better than one about itself, these debates have gotten plenty of oxygen.
Perceived as a neutral book of facts about language, the dictionary is also a way to organize our thoughts—a kind of glossary of life. Ideas, news, and memes may fly at us at broadband speed, but our brains still process language as they always have. Maybe that's why there's something reassuring about our private relationship to dictionaries. When we have questions, it's always good place to start.