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Merriam-Webster’s Top 10 Words 2012: socialism and capitalism are the most searched words

Socialism and capitalism are the two words sharing head rank of Merriam-Webster’s most looked up words in 2012, in a most unlikely unity.

Socialism and capitalism have been announced as the online dictionary’s most searched words, with their traffic about doubling this year from the year before as the health care debate heated up and discussion intensified over “American capitalism” versus “European socialism”.

According to editor at large Peter Sokolowski, the choice revealed on Wednesday was a “kind of a no-brainer”.

The side-by-side interest among political candidates and around kitchen tables prompted the dictionary folk to settle on two words of the year rather than one for the first time since the accolade began in 2003.

“They’re words that sort of encapsulate the zeitgeist. They’re words that are in the national conversation,” said Peter Sokolowski from company headquarters in Springfield, Massachusetts.

“The thing about an election year is it generates a huge amount of very specific interest.”

Democracy, globalization, marriage and bigot – all touched by politics – made the Top 10, in no particular order. The latter two were driven in part by the fight for same-sex marriage acceptance.

Last year’s word of the year was austerity. Before that, it was pragmatic. Other words in the leading dictionary maker’s Top 10 for 2012 were also politically motivated.

Harken back to October 11th, when Vice President Joe Biden tangled with Mitt Romney running mate Paul Ryan in a televised debate focused on foreign policy – terror attacks, defense spending and war, to be specific

“With all due respect, that’s a bunch of MALARKEY,” declared Joe Biden during a particularly tough row with Ryan. The mention sent look-ups of malarkey soaring on Merriam-webster.com, Peter Sokolowski said, adding: “Clearly a one-week wonder, but what a week!”

Actually, it was more like what a day. Look-ups of malarkey represented the largest spike of a single word on the website by percentage, at 3,000 per cent, in a single 24-hour period this year.

The company won’t release the number of page views per word but said the site gets about 1.2 billion overall each year.

Socialism and capitalism are the two words sharing head rank of Merriam-Webster's most looked up words in 2012

Socialism and capitalism are the two words sharing head rank of Merriam-Webster’s most looked up words in 2012

Malarkey, with the alternative spelling of “y” at the end, is of unknown origin, but Merriam-Webster surmises it’s more Irish-American than Irish, tracing it to newspaper references as far back as 1929.

Beyond “nonsense”, malarkey can mean “insincere or pretentious talk or writing designed to impress one and usually to distract attention from ulterior motives or actual conditions”, noted Peter Sokolowski.

“That’s exactly what Joe Biden was saying. Very precise,” especially in conversation with another Irish-American, Peter Sokolowski said.

“He chose a word that resonated with the public, I think in part because it really resonated with him. It made perfect sense for this man to use this word in this moment.”

An interesting election-related phenomena, to be sure, but malarkey is no dead Big Bird or “binders full of women” – two Romneyisms from the defeated candidate’s televised matchups with Barack Obama that evoked another of Merriam-Webster’s Top 10 – “meme”.

While malarkey’s history is shaded, meme’s roots are easily traced to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, a Brit who coined the term for a unit of cultural inheritance, not unlike genes and DNA. The retired professor at the University of Oxford made up the word in 1976 for The Selfish Gene, a book he published light years before the Internet and social media’s capacity to take memes viral.

Peter Sokolowski said traffic for “meme” more than doubled this year over 2011, with dramatic spikes pegged to political-related subjects that included Mitt Romney’s Big Bird and binders remarks, social media shares of images pegged to Hillary Clinton texting and Barack Obama’s “horses and bayonets” debate rebuke of Mitt Romney in an exchange over the size of the Navy.

Dawkins, reached at home in Oxford, was tickled by the dictionary shoutout.

“I’m very pleased that it’s one of the 10 words that got picked out,” he said.

“I’m delighted. I hope it may bring more people to understand something about evolution.”

The book in which he used meme for the first time is mostly about the gene as the primary unit of natural selection, or the Darwinian idea that only the strongest survive. In the last chapter, he said, he wanted to describe some sort of cultural replicator.

And he wanted a word that sounded like “gene”, so he took a twist on the Greek mimeme, which is the origin of “mime” and “mimesis”, a scientific term meaning imitation.

“It’s a very clever coinage,” lauded the lexicographer Peter Sokolowski.

Other words in Merriam-Webster’s Top 10 for 2012:

Touché, thanks in part to ‘Survivor’ contestant Kat Edorsson misusing the word to mean “tough luck” rather than point well made, before she was voted off the island in May. Look-ups at Merriam-webster.com were up sevenfold this year over 2011.

Schadenfreude, made up of the German words for “damage” and “joy”, meaning taking pleasure in the misery of others, was used broadly in the media after the election. Look-ups increased 75%. The word in English dates to 1895.

Professionalism, up 12% this year over last. Peter Sokolowski suspects the bump might have been due to the bad economy and more job seekers,


  1. Socialism and capitalism
  2. Touché
  3. Bigot
  4. Marriage
  5. Democracy
  6. Professionalism
  7. Globalization
  8. Malarkey
  9. Schadenfreude