Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

When News Breaks, People Look it up in the Dictionary

The Internet may be the new newspaper, but it's also become the new dictionary, and the two are inextricably linked: when news breaks, people rush online to find out what it means, and whether it's a noun or a verb.

In its "trend watch" link, dictionary-maker reports on this almost-Pavlovian response that drives us to look up words in the news, whether it's the the vocabulary of hot political stories or news about more routine events. For example, when former CNN anchor Rick Sanchez called Jon Stewart a bigot and suggested that "everybody who runs CNN" is Jewish, people looked up bigot, though probably not because they thought Jon Stewart was a bigot. And when austerity began to appear with some regularity in stories about the economy, people looked it up as well, if they could afford to.

More recently, when Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi announced his intention to "die as a martyr" in the face of the country's growing revolution, there was a surge in martyr look-ups (though the revolutionaries announced that the total number of martyrs wouldn't be affected if anything happened to Qaddafi).

There hadn't been a regime change in Libya since Qaddafi's own coup forty-two years earlier, and dictator-ousters in the Middle East, usually rare, were suddenly all the rage, so events in that country, and the words associated with them, were suddenly big news. But look-ups for resolution spiked on Dec. 30, 2010, on the eve before New Year's Eve, and New Year's Eve is an annual event that takes few of us by surprise. Maybe this year lots of people made a New Year's resolution to look up resolution, and unlike most resolutions, they actually kept this one, in advance, no less.

Mostly, though, we look up words we don't know at all. After Carrie Fisher used the word mensch about her father, readers unfamiliar with the Yiddish term looked it up. (Carrie's ima, Debbie Reynolds, didn't think Eddie Fisher was such a mensch when he left her for Elizabeth Taylor, who probably never called Richard Burton a mensch. On the other hand, Jon Stewart seems like a mensch to everyone but Rick Sanchez, who probably should have looked up its meaning, but hey, that's show business.) And when Julian Assange's lawyer called his client phlegmatic, Americans who don't associate WikiLeaks with phlegm ran to check phlegmatic online (if they're lucky they also learned that the British call phlegm catarrh).

Then there was the Baltimore Sun headline that used the word limn in a pre-election story"Opposing Votes Limn Difference in Race" (Sept. 7, 2010, p. 1a)—and that uncommon word meant more business for lexicographers, though perhaps fewer assignments for the Sun editor who slipped it in. Not-quite-apologizing for the headline, the next day the Sun pointed out that although one reader characterized the use of limn as "arrogant and patronizing," and many found it annoyingly obscure, "the paper has included the word at least 47 times, just since 1991." To ensure that Sun readers increase their vocabularies, in another burst of arrogance, conceit, superciliousness, and condescension, the Sun announced a vocabulary test in every edition, on the puzzle page with the Word Jumble and the Sudoku.

Also there are the words popping up in the news which we know but can't define exactly. We look these up for clarification, or to confirm our suspicions. Elena Kagan once called Senate hearings on judicial nominations vapid. People probably already knew that vapid was a bad thing, but when Kagan's long-ago quote surfaced during her own Supreme Court nomination hearings last year, people checked to see how bad a thing it was to be vapid. Those who looked it up learned that compared to the Clarence Thomas hearings, or those for Robert Bork,who never made it to the Court, Kagan's were quintessentially vapid.

We also look up words that we suspect aren't really words, like Sarah Palin's refudiate. Refudiate look-ups spiked shortly after she tweeted the word, then erased her tweet, then retweeted to compare what she decided wasn't an error but a coinage to the many new words coined by Shakespeare ("got to celebrate it"). It turns out that refudiate popped up as early as 1891 and has been used on and off since then. It's one of those not-a-words that appear every once in a while, and then drop out of sight again. The Oxford American Dictionary chose refudiate as its 2010 word of the year, though in an act of repudiation, the editors decided not to put the word into their dictionary. Because repudiate is both a word and not-a-word at the same time.

But none of this looking up of hard or foreign words is really news to lexicographers. That's the reason dictionaries arise in the first place, to help readers with difficult words. The big question with these online look-ups is, why do people also look up easy words, or ones they know pretty well, like martyr and resolution? Or other common words-in-the-news that have spiked, like frugal, seepage, or culture? It just can't be the case that all those online readers are unfamiliar with opulent, furtive, and dissident, or vague about shellacking, censure, and commoner.

Readers don't look up a lot of words they already know in print dictionaries. What, then, drives the look-up of familiar words online? Maybe it's just the fact that we can. Clicking on just about any word in the digital New York Times opens up a window with definitions, synonyms, even a short encyclopedia article, and yes, more links to follow. And if there's one thing readers of digital text can't resist, it's clicking to see what treasures lurk behind the screen, what invitingly-labyrinthine rabbit hole they can wander down. Suddenly we've all got a magic decoder ring, and like any new toy, we want to see how it works.

Or maybe I'm wrong, maybe people are looking up "easy" words like prosperous, voluptuous, and repeal, because, like mensch, mercurial, and doppelganger, they don't know them either. Perhaps they're English language learners, or children devouring knowledge every chance they get. Maybe it's adults for whom words are a never-ending source of pleasure. Or maybe it's just the irresistible click that draws us deeper into the dictionary.

But whatever the explanation, and whatever the size of your vocabulary, everybody needs dictionaries, so let me leave you with one final thought: Make your daylight-saving time resolution now to look up daylight-saving time before March 12. Don't wait till you oversleep on March 13. That would be, as my digital thesaurus tells me, imprudent, incautious, and improvident. As well as an hour too late.

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

How did Obama's term "shellacking" come to describe a thorough defeat?
Torn Limn from Limn
The Baltimore Sun upset some readers by using the word "limn" in a headline.
A measured look at the controversy over Sarah Palin's use of "refudiate."