What makes a word the word of the year?

A brief examination of how "science" topped Merriam-Webster's 2013 list

(Image credit: (Courtesy Shutterstock))

What makes a word the word of the year? Different authorities use different criteria in making their selections. Last month, Oxford Dictionaries crowned "selfie" the word of the year because it was "judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance." Merriam-Webster takes another approach, starting not with an assessment of the general cultural zeitgeist, but with a look at the number of look-ups on its online dictionary. This year, the word with the greatest increase in look-ups — 176 percent — was science.

But why have so many people been looking up science in the dictionary? It's not a particularly difficult word, and we all pretty much know what it means, right? The Merriam-Webster.com dictionary entries prompt users to leave a Facebook comment in answer to the question "What made you want to look up this word?" Some answers reference school projects, or curiosity about whether subjects like sociology or mathematics qualify as sciences. In general people didn't look up "science" because they didn't have any idea what it meant, but because they needed to pin it down more clearly, or because they weren't sure if their idea was the widely accepted one, or because they were having an argument with someone and needed some authoritative ammunition.

It turns out that the rise in look-ups for science does capture something about the cultural atmosphere of 2013. According to Merriam-Webster Editor-at-Large Peter Sokolowski, "a wide variety of discussions centered on science this year, from climate change to educational policy. We saw heated debates about 'phony' science, or whether science held all the answers. It's a topic that had great significance for us." Sometimes events in the world conspire to make us a little unsure of our intuitions, and we want to cross check them with an authority of some kind. The way we use the dictionary can tell us a lot about how much we feel the cultural ground shifting under our feet.

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Other top look-ups included cognitive, rapport, communication, niche, ethic, paradox, visceral, integrity, and metaphor.

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