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How Dictionary Searches Define Readers


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

Before the digital age, dictionary editors could debate a new word or a new usage. But even when they put it in, they never had any idea whether anybody looked it up. Now, dictionaries are readily available online and communication goes both ways. When the vice president drops the word malarkey into a televised debate, they can see a whole lot of people checking on the definition. In fact, a lot of news stories develop into vocabulary events. So what's the word you look up after a major news event? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Peter Sokolowski is the editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster. He was interviewed for a story in The Chronicle of Higher Education and joins us today from member station KNPR in Las Vegas. Nice to have you on the program.

PETER SOKOLOWSKI: And great to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: And I gather you and others noticed this phenomenon following the death of Princess Diana.

SOKOLOWSKI: Well, that's right, because that was really the first in the Internet age, this first, great, sort of, worldwide news event. And we put a dictionary online in 1996, merriam-webster.com, and it was free, and it still is free, and so a lot of people started using it. And we noticed, right away, a kind of pattern of lookups. What we call it lookups, that is to say words researched online. And we noticed that we learned a lot about the English language, about what words are looked up every single day in kind of a perennial way. And then, all of a sudden, it changed, and we saw that words like paparazzi and then cortege during the funeral. And then, finally, interestingly, a word that we maybe wouldn't think of a spelling bee word or a vocabulary test word, the word princess itself was looked up a lot. And it told us a little bit immediately about this intersection of vocabulary and the news.

CONAN: And it has gone on to be reflected in other news events.

SOKOLOWSKI: It sure has. I mean, when a big event happens, for example, the impeachment of President Clinton and a legal terminology, especially after 9/11, where we saw, you know, an enormous - obviously, an enormous amount of attention paid to the coverage and the - and any news coming out of that story. And so we had this kind of concrete word of disaster, like rubble and triage in the first couple of days. And then words of explanation or of politics, like terrorism and jingoism. And then later, you know, four, five days later, we found that people were turning to the dictionary for what I would call philosophy, words like surreal and succumb, that were looked up most often. And that's really kind of interesting, that they were turning to the dictionary, following their thoughts. In other words, not the cue of a politician's word, for example, but actually, the ideas that they were sharing themselves

And when we, you know, then took the cue of the public and looked up the word surreal, for example, the definition reads marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream. And I found that very poignant, that this is what people were thinking about at that particular time.

CONAN: And I - do you find new usages this way too?

SOKOLOWSKI: We sure do mostly because, you know, I mean, a great example is sequester. It's a usage that's, you know, a little bit peculiar. It's certainly peculiar to American politics. And the sense of setting something aside is well-covered in the dictionary, but this very specific political meaning is not yet in most dictionaries. And so we're seeing so much interest in this word. And as usual, we take note of this new sense of an existing word and draft definitions to correspond to it. Now, as with many, you know, things in the dictionary world, these things take a little time. And sometimes, we kind of hope that if it's a slang word or if it's some kind of new term from pop culture, as a culture, we sometimes hope that it'll go away. But in the case of sequester, it seems like it's here to stay. So that will be a word that we will be probably adding to the dictionary, I would say, the next year or two.

CONAN: So maybe the second meaning after, you know, sequester, like a jury is sequestered.

SOKOLOWSKI: And that's exactly right because we follow kind of a historical pattern, which is to say that the oldest sense of the word is usually the first sense and usually a more concrete sense. And as you move away from that, in time, you also move away from it towards certain metaphorical uses like this.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. What's the word you looked up after a news story? Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Joe, and Joe's on the line with us from Tampa.

JOE: Yeah, I was actually interested in the word curia. All the sudden, it came up yesterday in relation to the pope. And I'm not sure - I'm sure it'll fade away. It probably will not have the legs of sequester, but - and I'm not sure it would've come up if they had picked an Italian pope.


JOE: That was (technical difficulties) to the curia. But it - and I still haven't really found it in the dictionary. I've only been able to piece together. I guess it means the ruling cardinals but...

CONAN: No, no. That's the conclave. That's the conclave. The curia is sort of the Vatican bureaucracy.

JOE: That's what I meant. The ruling - I meant the cardinals that rule the Vatican, right. But, yeah, it's just a weird - I thought I was following this closely until - I did not hear that word until yesterday when somebody was - when the pope selected was an opposition to that group. So, great show as always.

CONAN: Oh, thanks very much. Peter Sokolowski, have you noticed any curia curiosity?

SOKOLOWSKI: Absolutely. But certainly, the word conclave was one of the most looked-up words of the last two weeks or so. The word Jesuit was the big spike this particular week because that was really the headline of this particular pope's election, was that he was the first Jesuit being elected. But curia is a word that goes back, not surprisingly, to the Renaissance in English. But it's basically a Latin form. It's a Latin word and has been, sort of, borrowed into English. We say borrowed but, of course, we never give them back. So this is a word that has become an English word, and even though it's new to many people, of course, it's very old in its usage.

CONAN: And I guess conclave is probably Latin as well.

SOKOLOWSKI: Same thing. I mean, so true for those - the terms of Catholic bureaucracy as you say. Those early Latin - the earliest Latin terms in the English language really did come from the church.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Amy. Austerity, and she notes, I guess I wasn't paying attention in economics.


SOKOLOWSKI: And, you know, because it's been part of not just an American story but a worldwide story, and it's a word we hear mostly associated with the European debt crisis and the policies of those governments. And, of course, austerity, another, you know, great word with classical roots, you know, with Latin roots and - goes back to, you know, to Middle English, to the 14th century, you know, the state of being austere in one kind of definition. If we look back, we see that that word basically means stern and cold in its original sense. And then - that sense of morally strict, or ascetic, is where it came, you know, came further in the English language. And then basically, markedly simply or unadorned, is the basic meaning of the word. And then austerity, of course, is just the implementation of that kind of life.

CONAN: What you were saying about sequester earlier that you could, obvious - you know, online dictionary, put in that second meaning relatively quickly.

SOKOLOWSKI: Exactly. And that's something that, you know, the change from print to online has been, you know, a tremendously difficult one for all of book publishing and journalism, as you know. It's worked out pretty well for us in the sense that the dictionary is some place where people can turn whenever they have question. And now it's whether you're on your iPhone or on your laptop or, you know, wherever you are, you can always have access to the dictionary. And that's great for us because the decline in print sales has been augmented by - has been offset by the increase in ad sales online. So that's what permits Merriam-Webster to continue to make dictionaries, and we're really pleased about that.

But, yes, indeed, we can separate them. And in fact, we just did this month, for the first time, separated the book, the print book of our big unabridged dictionary, which weighs 14 pounds, enormous Webster's third, from its online analogue, which has many, many, many new words in it that will be added on a continual basis, and exactly right, because we can do that online.

CONAN: So a book - normally the electronic version of the book is the same words, the same exact thing as the book. In this case, it's different. They're two different things.

SOKOLOWSKI: Yeah. Because it will take so long to update nearly half a million dictionary definitions, we have decided that it's best to take this dictionary and make it as relevant and as current as possible by simply putting it online with as much new information as we have and then, every few months, continuing to add to that batch until ultimately we'll have supplanted the entire book. But who knows? That may take quite a number of years.

CONAN: Let's see if we get some more callers in. This is Mary, Mary with us from Columbus.

MARY: Yes.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

MARY: My word is hubris, and I can't remember where I heard it. I think, maybe on NPR or online, or listening on the radio. And I've never heard it before, so I looked it up. And I believe it's acting with arrogance, something to that effect.

CONAN: And I think here, we're going to the Greek.

SOKOLOWSKI: Yes, exactly. And, you know, exaggerated pride or self-confidence. And that's, you know, that's a really good example of the kind of word that people look up all the time. In other words, not triggered by a news event necessarily. When I look at the daily logs, we see words like ubiquitous, paradigm, pragmatic, integrity, insidious, conundrum, and they all have something in common. They are usually words that are slightly abstract and that have classical roots, Greek or Latin roots. And hubris is another one of those.

And they really do sort of sound like a vocabulary test because what are we doing with the dictionary? I mean, looking up a word in the dictionary is ultimately a private act. It's an intimate thing. We're checking for ourselves maybe the spelling or the meaning of a word. And so what we see with these words are these are words that English speakers are perennially a little bit insecure about.

CONAN: Do you gather information on who is looking up which word?

SOKOLOWSKI: You know, we really don't. And we just take the raw numbers, and they're associated with each page. And that's one thing about the Internet that works really well for the dictionary. Every page is a single entry so that if we count the pages, we are effectively counting the curiosity about the entries. And so they are simply put in order and I can see relatively speaking which words are looked up more than others. And it's a very long tale as you might gather. But to spike a word to the top, like, malarkey, for example, during the president - the vice presidential debate, really takes a huge amount of curiosity on the part of the public. And it's a great way of measuring what they're interested in at the time, but no.

There was time when an odd term - the term physical education, which has an entry in the dictionary, was spiking for days and weeks and I couldn't figure out why. And it turned out that there was a new policy argument going on in the Philippines, and the Philippines are great users of our dictionaries online. And someone had made a petition that linked to our entry for physical education. It had to do with a new government policy about childhood, you know, public education. And that's what was driving the traffic. So sometimes, it's something very simple like a link that can actually show, you know, huge amount of interest from the public.

CONAN: Mary, thanks very much.

MARY: You're welcome and I'm glad to hear that about sequester, because I was trying to figure out what in the heck that meant in conversations.


SOKOLOWSKI: You and everybody else.


MARY: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster, voice of Merriam-Webster word of the day Podcast and with us from member station KNPR in Las Vegas. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

This email from a listener named Ethem(ph): I remember looking up pivot some time during the election season last year. And you can certainly pivot a political position. I guess, somebody can do a flip-flop. But I think there was also the president's pivot to Asia.

SOKOLOWSKI: Hmm. And these are, you know, when words are used in the media, they often do queue huge amount of curiosity. I mean, there are words that are kind of journalist - journalese, you know, words that journalists like to use, the word mercurial, for example, which is often used in obituaries for, for example, for Gaddafi, but it was also used for Steve Jobs. And it's not the kind of word we use in our everyday language, but it is the kind of word that headline writers, you know, go for, like the word temblor, meaning earthquake.

CONAN: Earthquake. Yeah.

SOKOLOWSKI: And so we see when those words are used by the press, the press actually triggers huge quick curiosity about that kind of vocabulary, which is interesting to see this relationship because, of course, the dictionary is looking a little bit in the rear-view mirror of the language. In other words, we kind of take the census of the language and then present it as quickly as we can as accurately as we can. But we don't invent the words or the usages. We simply report them. And so there is a little lag in time, you know, when a word blog - like blog, for example, appeared on the scene. It took a couple of years before it entered into the dictionary.

CONAN: Trembler is one of those words that every person has ever written. News copy has misused...

SOKOLOWSKI: Misspelled.

CONAN: ...misspelled. But trembler in there...

SOKOLOWSKI: Exactly. For good reason.

CONAN: ...got good corrected by some stern editor, so - let's see if we - go next to Carol. Carol's with us from Frankenmuth in Michigan.

CAROL: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air.

CAROL: I actually have two words. One is - have to do with Michigan. When we were doing the sesquicentennial, which was 150th anniversary of city hood. There was a lot of looking up that word because we had to use it work and so we wanted to make sure that we were spelling it correctly. And the other one is gravitas. And that was...


CAROL: ...due to a lovely man, who is not on NPR, and he would use it quite a bit in the sound bites he was using, as is Rush Limbaugh. And he was using that. It seems like every other (unintelligible) in news cast thing that he had. And I looked at that one up.


CONAN: I think the definition goes back to the Latin word for weight.

SOKOLOWSKI: Yeah. Exactly right.

CAROL: Yeah. So if something has weight and says that somebody were saying, oh, this person has gravitas so they have, you know, Ph.D.'s and all kind of things after learning, so you would give more weight to that person's opinion than someone else.

SOKOLOWSKI: Yeah. It's satisfying when the etymology sort explains the metaphor, doesn't it? In this case, it does because we use it to mean, you know, high seriousness. But it really comes from the word weight, as you say.

CAROL: Yeah, but (unintelligible).

SOKOLOWSKI: And, of course, the centennial is - that's great. You know, the - and one of my favorite words is sesquipedalian, and - which means one who uses words.


SOKOLOWSKI: And sesqui means one and a half, you know, so sesquicentennial - in this case, 150.

CAROL: Yeah.


CONAN: Carol, thanks very much.

CAROL: Okie dokie.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Debra, Debra with us from Nevada City.

DEBRA: Hi. My - I have two words. One is wonky and the other one is bellwether, both of which I never heard before. And in the last year, I hear a lot during the election.

SOKOLOWSKI: Yeah. Wonky, you've kind of got it. Like sequester, that's one in the sense of, you know, having the qualities of an expert, you know, which is what we term a wonk to be. And wonk, by the way, which used really mean nerd, you know, meant someone who is sort of excessively interested in the details or the arcane of subject. But now, we use it in this political sense to mean an expert of policy. And that sense is not yet in the dictionary, I'm embarrassed to say. But after last year, I think it's absolutely headed into the dictionary because it's a word that everybody use. I totally agree. And - I'm sorry, your other word?

CONAN: Was bellwether, kind of a political cliche, at this point.

SOKOLOWSKI: Yeah, exactly. I mean, and, you know, a word like this that, you know, that means one that takes the lead or one that takes the initiative, a leader, basically, an indicator of trends. And that's a word that, you know, it's been around for a good long while. It goes back to almost as old as the, you know, English language itself to the 1200s coming from the Middle English, you know, it has to do with the practice of leading a sheep or a flock of sheep. And that's where the word comes from.

CONAN: I didn't know that. I assume it had to do with something like a telltale on a bell tower or something like that.

SOKOLOWSKI: Right. Exactly. Yeah, no bell and whether, which is the practice of belling, you know, ringing a bell to the flock to make them come home.


CONAN: Debra, thanks very much. And, Peter Sokolowski, appreciate your time today.

SOKOLOWSKI: Thank you.

CONAN: Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster, with us from KNPR, a member station in Las Vegas. You can find a link to Chronicle of Higher Education article titled "In the Digital Era, Our Dictionaries Read Us" on our website. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. We'll see you again on Monday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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