The Word(s) of the Year

“Capitalism” and “socialism” have hit the big time—at least as far as Merriam-Webster is concerned. The two words share the honor of being the “Word of the Year,” meaning they were the most looked-up words of 2012. Last year’s Word of the Year was “austerity,” which goes to show how much politics influences web traffic. Even though “socialism” was searched for more often, the Merriam-Webster editors felt it was proper to make “capitalism” and “socialism” co-winners—rather than making “capitalism” the runner-up, since they believed the two words were closely related and that the lookup of one often led to looking up the other.

It should be clear that even Merriam-Webster couldn’t resist touching the currently exposed nerve of American partisan politics. Never in recent memory has the American electorate been so openly divided about key political issues, made most evident these days by the ceaseless blathering about the “fiscal cliff.” It seems that division is the new unity and intolerance is the new tolerance. Who can blame Merriam-Webster for jumping on the sectarian bandwagon, attempting to get a bit more mileage out of the prevailing political stalemate?

It should also be clear that Americans are more politically engaged than the mainstream media thinks. Merriam-Webster is a reference website, one that individuals visit voluntarily when they have specific questions about words. It is an encouraging sign then that these two words are being looked up; it is an indication that all is not yet lost, that people are still concerned about understanding what is really being said. Although socialism and capitalism are certainly overused and often-abused terms, it is still good to see people wanting to learn or verify what the definitions of these words actually are.

What I also find interesting about these Words of the Year is how they point to the interconnectedness of modern media. Most Americans watched the presidential and vice-presidential debates on television screens, yet flipped over to their internet devices (computer, tablet, smartphone) to get clarity for the information being presented via the TV. This seems to signify that the television and internet realms, although converging in many ways, are still seen as separate, yet symbiotic, avenues for information. This is further supported by the fact that “globalization” and “malarkey”—two words that can be directly attributed to the debates—clock in at numbers 7 and 8 respectively on the Top Ten list of searched words for 2012. If nothing else this shows how the web has become deeply ingrained into our daily habits. Much like the telephone itself, the internet has become a given for twenty-first century people. It is no longer a modern convenience; it is a modern necessity.

This should be both a warning and a motivation. Number Ten on the list is the word “meme,” a word invented by Richard Dawkins in 1976 in his book, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins was searching for a word that communicated how ideas and thoughts pass from one group of people to another, which over time actually help to change the beliefs and practices of an entire society. Finding nothing that equated to the word “gene” for the non-physical world of thoughts and ideas, Dawkins created the word “meme.” 36 years later, it is still an important word—perhaps even more so—due to the nature and speed of social network sites like Facebook and Twitter. Memes that would have taken years and decades to reach the ends of the earth only ten years ago can now move from Manhattan to Mumbai in a matter of minutes. This is the power of the internet. Getting a message out to the world is much easier in our brave new internet world, the challenge however is making the message compelling enough to stand out. Merriam-Webster proves that people are listening, the question is: What are we doing to make our message interesting and captivating?