Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Are You Esurient for New Words?

A couple of weeks ago, Merriam-Webster announced their top words of 2009 based on the intensity of lookups to its online dictionary and thesaurus. Now Dictionary.com has their own announcement of the most looked-up words of the past year. Though the main list is full of usual suspects like affect and effect (perennial stumpers even for native English speakers), the "top gainer" is a very unusual word: esurient, meaning 'extremely hungry; desirous; greedy.' What might explain the ravenous interest in this obscure term?

The press release from Dictionary.com states: "In the midst of the Bernie Madoff financial scandal, AIG's collapse and numerous bank failures, it's no surprise that esurient, a synonym for greedy, experienced the greatest growth in popularity with an 831 percent increase." With all due respect, I doubt that the year's financial scandals had much to do with lookups for esurient. When Merriam-Webster released its annual list, most of the words corresponded to particular news events: the House of Representatives admonished Joe Wilson; Michael Jackson looked emaciated before his death; swine flu reached pandemic levels. But aside from one opinion piece in the Boston Globe, I don't think many in the media were describing Madoff and his ilk as esurient. Why would they, when far more common synonyms like greedy or rapacious are at hand? (Well, George Will might have used it, just for the pleasure of making his readers scurry to the dictionary.)

The actual explanation for the word's "top gainer" status may be a bit less exciting. On October 5th, Dictionary.com featured esurient as its Word of the Day. Enough people must have been curious enough to click through to the full entry to boost the stats of this rare word. A similar reason seems to explain why nugatory got on the Merriam-Webster list: an online column linked to the M-W definition of the word, and that led to a spike in interest so intense that it even showed up on Google Trends.

Of course, even if esurient was featured as a Word of the Day, there still must have been something inherently intriguing about the word to attract all those looker-uppers. Perhaps it's because the roots of the word are not immediately obvious. It derives from the Latin verb esurire, 'to be hungry' ultimately from edere, 'to eat.' (Latin grammar-heads will know that esurire is the "desiderative" form of edere, expressing a desire to eat.) In the literal sense of "hungry," esurient has mostly been used for playful effect — it's "humorously pedantic," according to the Oxford English Dictionary. A fine example (and, indeed, the only example many people know) is in the Cheese Shop sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus. John Cleese's character explains (pedantically) to Michael Palin, the cheese shop clerk, that he's "peckish" and "esurient," before simplifying his message in a comical Yorkshire accent: "Eee, I were all hungry, like."

Cleese's use of esurient sounds like it's straight from a thesaurus — much as he plumbed Roget's to come up with so many different synonyms for dead in the famous Dead Parrot sketch (which also featured Palin as a less-than-truthful sales clerk): "He's kicked the bucket, he's shuffled off his mortal coil, rung down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible!" And while we're on the subject of thesaurus-driven comedy, let me leave you with Johnny Carson's own Dead Parrot-esque skit from "The Tonight Show," "Funeral for a Thesaurus Editor."

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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