SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) — In a year filled with political wrangling, natural disasters and pop-culture curiosities, Americans turned to Merriam-Webster to help define it all.
“Filibuster,” “refugee,” “tsunami” were among the dictionary publisher’s 10 most frequently looked-up words this year among about 7 million users of its online site.
But topping the list is a word that some say gives insight into the country’s collective concern about its values: integrity.
The noun, formally defined as a “firm adherence to a code” and “incorruptibility,” has always been a popular one on the Springfield-based company’s Web site, said Merriam-Webster President John Morse. But this year, the meaning of integrity seemed to be of extraordinary concern. About 200,000 people sought its definition online.
“I think the American people have isolated a very important issue for our society to be dealing with,” Mr. Morse said. “The entire list gives us an interesting window that opens up into what people are thinking about in their lives.”
Ralph Whitehead, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts, said the word may indicate the continuing discussion about American values and morality, or perhaps that integrity itself is becoming scarce and so its definition is not familiar.
“You hope integrity is a word everyone understands,” he said.
No. 10 on the list is “inept.” Sandwiched between “integrity” and “inept” is a cluster of nouns and an adjective or two obviously plucked from the headlines.
“Tsunami” jumped in popularity after one ravaged countries along the Indian Ocean last December, while “levee” and “refugee” are linked to Hurricane Katrina. Interest in the definition of the latter word — “one that flees; especially: a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution” — grew after media organizations were criticized for using it to describe hurricane victims.
“Filibuster” gained in popularity as Democrats threatened to use one to block federal judicial nominees, and “contempt” drew plenty of attention when Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter at the time, was jailed for refusing to reveal the identity of a source in a CIA leak case.
The election of a new pope after the death of John Paul II left thousands wondering what a conclave is, and news about the spread of infectious diseases brought up the term “pandemic.”