Merriam-Webster’s Top Two Words In 2012? Socialism And Capitalism

Merriam-Webster has clarified the top two most looked up words in 2012, and let it not be said that political debaters are failing to clarify their terms — “socialism” and “capitalism” have edged out all others when it comes to words needing a clarification of meaning in this election year.

Merriam-Webster can cull interest levels in words like “socialism” and “capitalism” now that we’ve all abandoned analog dictionaries and headed to the Google God for all our definition-related needs. (The trend also seems to belie an American fear of words that looms larger than the concepts behind them — with “socialist” deemed an insult or scary word versus the perceived-as-complimentary “capitalist.”)

Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski commented on what drives the spike in politically semantic words in years like 2012, saying:

“They’re words that sort of encapsulate the zeitgeist. They’re words that are in the national conversation … The thing about an election year is it generates a huge amount of very specific interest.”

Indeed, Merriam-Webster’s top 2012 words don’t so much inform the direction of debate so much as reveal it — a debate the Washington Post quotes Sokolowski as explaining is a snapshot of a larger spat over the merits “American capitalism” versus “European socialism.”

“Democracy,” “globalization,” “marriage,” and “bigot” all ranked in the top ten, indicating that Merriam-Webster’s data suggests a larger focus on politics and the rightness of any one concept when searchers turn to definition-bearing tomes — or sites. Another breakout that saw a large spike was, unsurprisingly, “malarkey” — a somewhat dated term for a more common expletive that was invoked by Irish-American VP Joe Biden during his debate with fellow Irish-American Paul Ryan.

Sokolowski explains that “malarkey” is defined as “insincere or pretentious talk or writing designed to impress one and usually to distract attention from ulterior motives or actual conditions” and praises Biden’s use of the word both aptly and cleverly due to their shared heritage — which is amusing considering Ryan jabbed Biden on that exact issue as they sparred at a different juncture of the debate:

“That’s exactly what Joe Biden was saying. Very precise … He chose a word that resonated with the public, I think in part because it really resonated with him. It made perfect sense for this man to use this word in this moment.”

While Merriam-Webster reports a spike in interest in the political terms “socialism” and “capitalism,” the brand also says the politically neutral terms “meme,” “touche,” and “schadenfreude” drew many queries in 2012.

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