Election sent many to the dictionary

NEW YORK — Thanks to the election, socialism and capitalism are forever wed as Merriam-Webster’s most looked-up words of 2012.

Traffic for the unlikely pair on the company’s website about doubled this year from the year before as the health care debate heated up and discussion intensified over ‘‘American capitalism’’ versus ‘‘European socialism,’’ said the editor at large, Peter Sokolowski.

The choice revealed Wednesday was ‘‘kind of a no-brainer,’’ he said. The side-by-side interest among political candidates and around kitchen tables prompted the dictionary folk to settle on two words of the year rather than one for the first time since the accolade began in 2003.


‘‘They’re words that sort of encapsulate the zeitgeist. They’re words that are in the national conversation,’’ Sokolowski said from the company’s headquarters in Springfield, Mass. ‘‘The thing about an election year is it generates a huge amount of very specific interest.’’

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Democracy, globalization, marriage, and bigot — all touched by politics — made the Top 10, in no particular order. The latter two were driven in part by the fight for same-sex marriage acceptance.

Last year’s word of the year was austerity. Before that, it was pragmatic. Other words in the leading dictionary maker’s Top 10 for 2012 were also politically motivated.

Hark back to Oct. 11, when Vice President Joe Biden tangled with Mitt Romney running mate Paul Ryan in a televised debate focused on foreign policy.

‘‘With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey,’’ declared Biden during a particularly tough row with Ryan. The mention sent look-ups of malarkey soaring on Merriam-Webster.com, Sokolowski said, adding: ‘‘Clearly a one-week wonder, but what a week!’’


Actually, it was more like what a day. Look-ups of malarkey represented the largest spike of a single word on the website by percentage, at 3,000 percent, in a single 24-hour period this year. The company would not release the number of page views per word but said the site gets about 1.2 billion overall each year.

Malarkey is an interesting election-related phenom, to be sure, but it is no dead Big Bird or ‘‘binders full of women’’ — two Romneyisms from the defeated candidate’s televised matchups with Obama that evoked another of Merriam-Webster’s Top 10 — meme.

Meme’s roots are traced to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, a Brit who coined the term for a unit of cultural inheritance, not unlike genes and DNA. The retired professor at the University of Oxford made up the word in 1976 for ‘‘The Selfish Gene.’’

Sokolowski said traffic for meme more than doubled this year over 2011, with dramatic spikes pegged to political-related subjects that included Romney’s Big Bird and binders remarks, social media shares of images pegged to Hillary Rodham Clinton texting, and Obama’s ‘‘horses and bayonets’’ debate rebuke of Romney in an exchange over the size of the Navy.

SOURCE: Merriam-Webster