The sun is now setting before 7:30 p.m., students are descending on the area in droves, and labor day sales are being advertised here, there and everywhere. Make no mistake, summer 2017 is drawing to a close. And while the impulse may be to bemoan the end of the season, let's consider the bright side: An opportunity to put together seasonal "Best of" lists. And while old standbys like "Best Films" and "Top New Albums" have their charms, here at the Curiosity Desk, we love words. And when we're curious about words — specifically which ones have been piquing the public's curiosity — we turn to Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster, who keeps a steady eye on traffic to their online dictionary.
"This has been a really newsy summer," he said. "Therefore, the words that we see in the dictionary lookup data have been very newsy also."
Have they ever. Here's Merriam-Webster's list of the 10 most looked-up words for the Summer of 2017.
June 1 | Meme
meme | noun | an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture
The word "meme" saw a big spike in lookups when Harvard University announced it would rescind admissions to 10 prospective freshmen who had participated in a Facebook messaging group called "Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens," in which they traded, among other things, sexually explicit and racially insensitive memes and messages. This was a big story locally, but it also resonated across the country. "Oh, it was definitely a national story," said Sokolowski.
"Meme" spiked again in July, when President Donald Trump retweeted this:
#FraudNewsCNN #FNN pic.twitter.com/WYUnHjjUjg— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 2, 2017
June 5 | Science
sci·ence | noun | the state of knowing : knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding
When President Trump announced that he intended to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord, people went to the dictionary en masse to look up the word "science."
"That may seem a little surprising and counterintuitive," said Sokolowski. Despite the fact that it is a common word, Sokolowski said "science" is one of the most looked up words in the history of Merriam-Webster's online dictionary. In the case of this summer's spike, Sokolowski said Trump's announcement "made people really think about what science meant in this very technical ... specific ... legal sense because we're talking about an international agreement."
July 11 | Collusion
col·lu·sion | noun | secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose
It's a story that's continued to develop, change and make headlines for weeks, but the big spike in lookups for the word "collusion" came on day one, when news first broke that Donald Trump, Jr. and other members of Donald Trump's campaign team took a meeting with Russians at Trump Tower in June 2016.
July 20 | Recuse
re·cuse | verb | to disqualify (oneself) as judge in a particular case; broadly : to remove (oneself) from participation to avoid a conflict of interest
"Recuse" has been having a big year online. The word already saw significant lookups back in January when Attorney General Jeff Sessions was going through Senate confirmation hearings, and again in March when he formally recused himself from the Russia election meddling investigation. The July spike came courtesy of an interview President Trump gave with the New York Times in which he said, "Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else.”
July 27 | Sycophant
sy·co·phant | noun | a servile self-seeking flatterer
On the evening of July 26, then White House Communication Director Anthony Scaramucci sent out the tweet that first made public a rift between him and then-Chief of Staff Reince Preibus that would dominate the news cycle for days. The next morning, Scaramucci gave a lengthy phone interview to CNN during which he claimed he told President Trump, “I can’t afford to be a sycophant to you, sir." That sent folks to the dictionary in droves.
A few other words saw a significant boost in lookups during Scaramucci's brief tenure as White House Communications Director, too. It appears there are still plenty of Queen fans out there, as both "scaramouch" (a stock character in the Italian commedia dell'arte ... characterized by boastfulness and cowardliness) and "fandango" (a lively Spanish or Spanish-American dance in triple time) saw notable upticks. And the word "paranoid" also spiked, following Scaramucci's now infamous expletive-laced, on-the-record conversation with the The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza, in which he called Preibus "a ****ing paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac."
Aug. 2 | Cosmopolitan
cos·mo·pol·i·tan | noun | cosmopolite
Senior White House advisor Stephen Miller isn't heard from all that often, but when he was this summer, his choice of words sent plenty of folks to the dictionary. During a press briefing on new immigration policies, he got into a testy back-and-forth with CNN's Jim Acosta, who Miller accused of having a "cosmopolitan" bias.
"To be honest it wasn't really clear what [Miller] meant by that phrase," said Sokolowski. "It was a natural word for people to look up."
Aug. 3 | Impanel
im·pan·el | verb | to enroll in or on a panel
Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election has been a slowly developing story throughout the summer, but the moment that led to a spike in lookups was when The Wall Street Journal broke the news that he had impaneled a grand jury as part of that investigation.
"It's a very legalistic term," said Sokolowski. "And those are ones that send people to the dictionary on a predictable basis."
Aug. 10 | Bereft
be·reft | adjective | deprived or robbed of the possession or use of something — usually used with of
Tensions with North Korea have also continued to make news throughout the summer. During an escalating war of words, Donald Trump warned North Korea against continuing threats, saying they would be "met with fire and fury like the world has never seen." North Korea responded with a statement attributed to Gen. Kim Rak Gyom, saying of President Trump, “Sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason and only absolute force can work on him."
Aug. 12-13 | Nationalism
na·tion·al·ism | noun | loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially: a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others
The charged and tragic events that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend of Aug.12-13 was one of the biggest stories of the summer of 2017. Predictably, as people across the country took in the news, they also flocked to the dictionary to get a better and deeper sense of some of the words that dominated the news coverage of the event — in particular the word "nationalism." Other words/phrases that spiked during this time period included "bigot," "Neo-Nazi" and "white nationalist."
Aug. 21 | Eclipse
e·clipse | noun | the total or partial obscuring of one celestial body by another
It was, perhaps, the one feel-good story of the summer: The first total solar eclipse that could be seen from the mainland United States in almost 70 years. Just as it overshadowed all other news stories on Aug. 21, it also dominated the dictionary. Merriam-Webster saw spikes in lookups not just for the word eclipse, but also "totality," "penumbra" (a space of partial illumination between the perfect shadow on all sides and the full light) and a word that will earn you 25 Scrabble points and surely impress (or annoy) your friends — "syzygy" (the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies).
If there is something that has recently piqued your curiosity, use your words and email The Curiosity Desk. We might just look into it for you.