Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large for Merriam Webster, believes people are drawn to the dictionary for intellectual
moment when you find a definition that perfectly articulates
something you have been wanting to express.
In 2016, it appears that definition came under the heading of surreal
for many people—a word that English speakers habitually turn to in unbelievable times, and Merriam-Webster’s choice for the "Word of the Year."
surreal, adjective: marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream
Modern dictionary makers have the ability to know what humanity
is struggling to understand at any given moment, by tracking spikes
in the words that are being looked up; we may turn to Google to search for anything, but we turn to the dictionary to search for meaning. A definition that fits just right, says Sokolowski "actually brings some kind of order to somebody's life in that moment," and surreal is a word people turn to when they're trying to bring order to "the chaos
of the news."
Merriam-Webster's is the third of four major "Word of the Year" selections. The American Dialect Society, which basically invented this tradition, won't make its pick until January. But the other two that have been announced so far also reflect the tumult
of 2016. Oxford chose post-truth to sum up "a year dominated by highly-charged political and social discourse
" and marked by distrust. Dictionary.com chose xenophobia
because there were so many fears raised about so many "others."
Among runners-up for Merriam-Webster were bigly (which spiked because people misheard Donald Trump's repeated use of big-league), deplorable (thanks to one of Hillary Clinton's biggest gaffes
of the election) and revenant
(courtesy of Leonardo DiCaprio and a bear).