People look words up in online dictionaries all the time for all kinds of reasons. But there are moments — a presidential election for example — when certain words receive outsized attention. And sometimes, what people look up can actually tell us quite a bit about how we're feeling as a nation.

Even if he hadn't looked at the calendar, it was clear to Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large for Merriam Webster dictionary in Springfield, that November 3rd was election day. Why? The ten most looked up words in their online dictionary were all election related.

"The words that were looked up on Election Day, they tell a story all by themselves," he said.

One part of that story, said Sokolowski, is that people were clearly interested in the basic mechanics of the 2020 presidential election. Some of the most popular words searched included disenfranchise, contested election, incumbent and pandemic.

The other part was more ethereal — a collective interest in broad, issues-based words that were fundamental to many in this election, including empathy, integrity, character, change, justice and democracy.

Sokolowski said it’s not uncommon for common words like these to all of a sudden seem weightier to thousands of people in a moment like this.

"We see this over and over again that a specific event can make a general word seem like it needs more nuance, more detail. And it sends people to the dictionary," he explained.

But the word that dominated all others on election day was a descriptor, and incidentally one of Sokolowski’s favorite kind of words: A metaphorical — or figurative — compound noun.

"The big word on election day itself was the term nail-biter," said Sokolowski.

Whether folks were looking up nail-biter for its actual meaning or for details — like whether it’s one word, two words, or hyphenated — we don’t know. But it was clearly resonating with the public and is an undeniably apt descriptor of this year’s presidential race.

"It doesnt mean 'one who bites their fingernails,' but 'something that induces tension or anxiety,'" said Sokolowski. "This is a term that tells a little bit more than the literal meaning of the two words involved."

As the week wore on, Sokolowski said word lookups reflected an increased scrutiny on the gritty details of a close election. One big winner was the word "modest."

"The news [was] reporting a modest lead for example," said Sokolowski. "So that term — modest — which seems so general, suddenly seems very specific, maybe technical maybe even legal."

The same is true of two other words that saw spikes in lookups — both, in this case, related to ballots: "cure" and "provisional."

"Those are two words that have, in this instance, a meaning that seems to be very different from their general use," said Sokolowski.

By Friday, the tide appeared to be turning Joe Biden’s way, and Sokolowski said the words driving folks to the dictionary reflected that. The term "president-elect" began rising through the ranks, and lookups jumped dramatically for less familiar words, like "interregnum" and "denouement."

"Interregnum, meaning the period of time between two reigns, and denouement, meaning the end of something," explained Sokolowski.

The word "mandate" also saw a surge of interest.

"When people are using the term mandate they’e referring to the size of a victory," said Sokolowski. "They were anticipating, even though many of those states' election were not called. It was clear that the trends were going in a certain direction."

On Saturday, as news outlets began projecting Biden as the winner, Sokolowski once again saw quick shift in the public’s linguistic interests. The big words? Concede, repudiation, hallelujah and schadenfreude.

"So, we see these words that are not just of an end of a campaign but also a celebration of victory," said Sokolowski.

While election day is now over, the election process will continue to unfold for weeks. And the emerging storylines are rife with the kinds of words Sokolowski said often send folks to the dictionary in droves: The "certification" of elections, court cases seeking "injunctions," and questions about when, or if, "ascertainment" — formally launching the transition of administrations — will happen.

While the election is now over, there are still months until Inauguration Day on January 20, 2021.

In the interim, election-related storylines promise to be rife with the kinds of words Sokolowski says often sends folks to the dictionary in droves: the certification of election results, court cases seeking injunctions, and questions about when – or if – ascertainment — formally launching the transition of administrations — will happen.

These words — or others — could yet become central to the national dialogue in the coming weeks. And should they, even in deeply divided times, perhaps we can at least all agree on what they mean.

“The dictionary is here kind of as a public utility,” said Sokolowski. “To give people a place to go for neutral, objective reporting on the meaning of words.”