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Merriam Webster's word of the year

Steve JobsKim Jong IlNBAMSNBC (tv network)The Daily Show (tv program)Miami HeatAnthony D. Weiner

At first blush, the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il would appear to have little in common with Keith Olbermann, Steve Jobs and Moammar Gadhafi. (Well, maybe a little in common with Gadhafi. But stay with us here for a minute.)

Despite their distinct characters and contributions to the larger world, however, all four men earned the label "mercurial" in such numbers as to send online dictionary searches for the word through Merriam Webster's virtual roof in the days following their newsmaking.

"The word had four huge spikes this year and it's been fascinating to connect it with the news," says Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam Webster. "Mercurial as perfectionist for Steve Jobs, as performer for Olbermann, as madman for Gadhafi and as dictator for Kim Jong-il."

Sokolowski and his Merriam Webster colleagues track which words generate the most user lookups by the hour, day, month and year. As the year winds to a close, they compile an annual top 10 list of words most frequently queried (merriam-webster.com/info/2011words.htm).

At the top for 2011? "Pragmatic."

"Pragmatic is a word that's always being looked up, but it had two big spikes this year that were news-related," Sokolowski says. "Midsummer during the debt ceiling crisis and at the end of November when the super committee failed to come to a debt agreement. The enormous spikes, I think, speak to how 'pragmatic' measures the mood of the country, the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times — whether you're speaking in terms of economics or politics."

Trailing "pragmatic" were "ambivalence" at No. 2, "insidious" at No. 3 and "didactic" and "austerity" at Nos. 4 and 5. Rounding out the list at No. 10 was the heretofore obscure "après moi le déluge."

Après who?

"David Gergen used it in a column on CNN.com, which hyperlinked the phrase to our page," Sokolowski says. "The phrase soared thanks to one use by one writer in one column. That tells you the vagaries of the business. It also tells you something you might not have known, which is that the phrase après moi le déluge is in the dictionary."

We wondered: Do late-night TV watching and morning blogrolling lead Sokolowski to play a personal parlor game of Guess The Buzz Word? Does he watch "The Daily Show" with an eye turned to tomorrow's user lookups?

'Lexicographers make pretty bad fortune tellers," he laughs. "The word 'occupy,' for example, many people are speaking of as a so-called word of the year. But it's not particularly frequently looked up. The word associated with that movement that has spiked in lookups is 'capitalism.' That tells an interesting story: People are actually researching the subject of the protests."

Even more fun than the top 10 list, in our minds, is Merriam Webster's year in words list (merriam-webster.com/the-year-in-words/index.htm), a week-by-week look at the words that spiked in response to events in the worlds of politics, culture and sports.

On Jan. 22, the aforementioned "mercurial" spiked after news of Olbermann's surprise announcement he was leaving MSNBC. Osama bin Laden's death prompted a spike in "martyr" lookups on May 2. Congressman Anthony Weiner's twitter scandal prompted a spike in "lewd" searches on June 6.

And June 13 saw a surge in "schadenfreude" searches. The reason? The NBA championship, in which the Dallas Mavericks defeated the Miami Heat and their star LeBron James, who had left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in hopes of, um, winning an NBA championship.

At least no one called him mercurial. Which, for the record, means "changing moods quickly and often" (as in "a mercurial personality") and "very lively and quick" (as in "a mercurial wit"), according to Merriam-Webster.com.

"The word comes from the name of the Roman god Mercury," the site says, "which was then used to name the liquid metal. It's likely that the sense meaning 'quick' came from the speedy Roman god and the sense meaning 'volatile' came from the behavior of the metal that bears his name."

Oh, the fun to be had with a dictionary.

hstevens@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Steve JobsKim Jong IlNBAMSNBC (tv network)The Daily Show (tv program)Miami HeatAnthony D. Weiner
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