- The Washington Times - Monday, May 10, 2004

The flibbertigibbet was too persnickety, and a kerfuffle ensued.

Such talk is music to the ears of many Americans, at least those who have a penchant for English words, which — well — speak to them.

According to an online poll released yesterday by dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster, the top 10 most popular words of 2004 in order are defenestration, serendipity, onomatopoeia, discombobulate, plethora, callipygian, juxtapose, persnickety, kerfuffle and flibbertigibbet.

They are a riveting lot — but defenestration? Even Merriam-Webster publisher John M. Morse was somewhat taken aback by the winning word, which means to throw someone, or something, out the window.

“I was surprised it won by a such a wide margin. ‘Defenestration’ was a real dark horse,” Mr. Morse said yesterday. “We figured that it’s a long, fancy, five-syllable word which means to toss something out a window. People are amused by that. The playfulness of using a very big word for a simple concept appeals to them.”

There are the greater implications in the computer world, however.

“Various kinds of computer techies like ‘defenestration’ because it also applies to the Windows computer program,” Mr. Morse added. “Moving a screen icon about or getting so annoyed at Windows that you disable it altogether — that’s defenestration, too.”

During April, visitors to the Merriam-Webster Web site were invited to submit their absolute “favorite word.” For three weeks, submissions arrived at the rate of 1,000 a day, primarily from Americans. About 15 percent originated from outside the United States, Mr. Morse said.

The company tracked daily word winners as well. Brouhaha won on April 19, avatar on April 27 and akimbo on April 29. Other favorites included hoyden, twee, pusillanimous, grimalkin, galoot, myrmidion, palimpsest, oubliette and lagniappe.

The entries were often quite fanciful — in stark contrast to practical lists of the most frequently used words, which are assembled and argued over by linguists and educators. According to the Reading Teachers Book of Lists, third edition, for example, the top 10 most used English words are: the, of, and, a, to, in, is, you, that, it.

Mr. Morse, meanwhile, attributes a word’s aesthetic appeal to its “texture” — the sound, definition, background.

“Words charm people. They get emotional about language because it mirrors culture and history,” he said. “Using language can be a little like serving up a meal, with words as the ingredients.”

He votes “kerfuffle” as his personal favorite of the list.

“It’s chiefly a British word, and though it sounds particularly ancient, it really only entered common use from an old Scottish-Gaelic dialect about 50 years ago,” Mr. Morse said. “And that, to me, is interesting.”

Meanwhile, the Web site of the Massachusetts-based, 151-year-old publisher is a busy place. The site (www.merriam-webster.com) receives 100 million visitor hits a month. Requests for free “look-ups” from an online dictionary come in at the rate of up to 100 a second.

The company already is planning another contest for next year.


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