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Why “surreal,” not “fascism,” is Merriam-Webster’s word of the year

Searches for the word spiked after several world events in 2016.

Merriam-Webster Photo by Joanne K. Watson/Merriam-Webster via Getty Images

If you had to sum up 2016 in a single word, what would it be?

In November, Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as this year’s most representative word. And now, Merriam-Webster — which selects its word of the year based on searches conducted on its website instead of subjectively picking one, the way Oxford does — has announced that its word of the year for 2016 is “surreal.”

In a press release, Merriam-Webster explained that it determines the word of the year by looking at both searches on its website (which words did people look up most often?) and upward trends (which words saw a marked increase in lookups from one year to the next?). In 2016, the company noted several significant spikes in searches for “surreal,” after the terror attacks in Brussels in March, and after both the attempted coup in Turkey and the terror attacks in Nice in July.

But the period that gave “surreal” the most traffic was in November, after Donald Trump won the US election for president.

The word certainly makes sense in a year where events worldwide were seemingly more unbelievable and extreme than usual. But the fact that it won out might be surprising to some, given that a tweet from Merriam-Webster on November 29 revealed that “fascism” was the year’s frontrunner.

The company frequently tweets pithy things, but the memory of that fascism comment left us wondering: What led to surreal’s overall win?

Editor at large Peter Sokolowski clarified in an email to Vox that Merriam-Webster’s fascism tweet wasn’t about fascism being the most-searched word of 2016 so much as it represented “that particular moment” — the immediate aftermath of Trump winning the election.

“[The tweet] was playing on the concrete notion that if many people look up a word, that word will be noticed and reported by us,” Sokolowski wrote. “And, given what many are describing as a kind of annus horribilis for many different reasons, it was a way of drawing attention to more positive words.”

He also noted that fascism is less “unique” of a lookup than some might think:

While fascism was looked up frequently in 2016, it was also one of the top words in 2015. Since its year-over-year increase was more modest than for other words, we instead looked for words with significant increase in lookups in the past year. Words that have become perennials on our list, like integrity and pragmatic as well as socialism and fascism, don't necessarily tell us as much about what sent people to the dictionary in 2016.

So there you have it: Looking up the definition of “fascism” may have had its moment in 2016 (…and 2015), but “surreal” was the more consistent word of choice for Merriam-Webster users this year. Still, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that a different term Sokolowski used, “annus horribilis,” is a perfect phrase that deserves recognition unto itself — if not as 2016’s word of the year, then maybe as its most fitting synonym.

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