In the hours after Monday’s bombing attack at the Boston Marathon, Merriam-Webster editor at large Peter Sokolowski was monitoring the words most frequently looked up on the dictionary’s website. At 4 p.m., it was “casualty.” At 5 p.m., “incendiary.” At 6 p.m., “terrorism.”
In the evening hours, the mood reflected in the top lookups grew more pensive. At 8 p.m., the new leader was “tragedy.” And then came a word that so often crops up when people try to come to grips with startling, horrifying events: “surreal.”
The word order closely mirrored the one that Merriam-Webster had tracked following 9/11, when the words searched by the dictionary’s online visitors moved from the matter-of-fact—“rubble” and “triage”—to the contemplative—“surreal” and
“succumb.” Back then, it took a few days before “surreal” began spiking. This time around, it was only a matter of hours.
There’s a poignancy to people seeking out this word and its accompanying definition: “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream.” Sokolowski conjectures that those who looked it up were trying to organize their thoughts about what transpired along Boylston Street, reaching out to the dictionary as a kind of emotional buttress.
But there’s another reason why “surreal” was on people’s minds Monday evening. By that time, there were numerous news reports online with interviews of those close to the bombing and its aftermath. And those shaken onlookers very often described what they experienced as “surreal.”
“It’s surreal, it’s tragic, it’s incomprehensible,” City Councilor at Large Ayanna Pressley told the Globe that night in Dorchester, as she paid tribute to 8-year-old Martin Richard, one of the bombing’s three victims. Casey Pola, a public relations professional who was a half a block away when the first bomb exploded, told Maine’s Sun Media Wire, “It’s literally like seeing a scene in a movie. It’s so surreal, so surreal.”
The word owes its creation to Surrealism, the early 20th-century art movement that blurred the line between dreams and reality in order to achieve a kind of “super” reality. But “surreal” is no longer merely an aesthetic: Now, we turn to it most often when our mundane day-to-day experiences of life seem to move into some other dimension that our rational minds cannot account for. As with 9/11, it is not surprising to see “surreal” paired with “like a movie”: Cinematic images of terror, disaster, and panic may be our closest touchstones.
In such unspeakable moments, words fail. This was true for those at the scene of the Marathon, but also for many who watched from afar as photos and videos began flooding social media and the enormity of the crisis began to take shape. When there are no words, “surreal” ends up working as a proxy for more complex, inchoate emotions that are difficult to verbalize. “Surreal” says: I saw it, but I don’t understand it. And with an event as terrible as this one, that understanding may never fully come.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and
Vocabulary.com. He can be reached