Merriam-Webster: The Word of the Year Is ‘Culture’

People frequently looked up the definition of the term in 2014.

photo by Steve Annear

photo by Steve Annear

The word “culture” has a variety of meanings: it can be tied to people’s beliefs and customs, or to a particular society’s way of thinking, behaving, or working habits, according to Merriam-Webster. But it’s because of the term’s ubiquitous nature that in 2014 it landed at the top of the Springfield-based dictionary company’s “Word of the Year” list.

“We don’t choose these words, the public chooses these words,” said Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster. “’Culture’ is the word that’s a clear winner with both volume and percentage of increase in people looking it up. It’s a word that is kind of everywhere at the moment. It’s kind of a serious word, and it’s also a bit abstract.”

It’s that abstraction, matched with events and conversations happening across the country, that lifted “culture” up to become the frontrunner for the annual “Word of the Year” list compiled by the staff. The word saw a 15% increase in queries on Merriam-Webster’s free website when compared to last year, Sokolowski said.

Sokolowski said the company usually notices a spike in web traffic for the word when students return to school in September, and again during the spring semester and finals time.

But this year, culture kept a steady gain, and while he can’t pinpoint the exact reasons it may have been widely researched online, his theory, based on data, is that the rapid influx may be associated with trending topics of discussion.

“It’s clearly an academic word, but this year, like the tide, it was a year-long spike rather than an individual one,” he said. “It very conveniently isolates an idea or a group, or an issue. So for example, we can speak of consumer culture, or a culture of transparency, or celebrity culture, or police culture.”

Conversations about “rape culture,” a term that has dominated news headlines based on sexual assaults being reported on college campuses, and the culture of innovation as it pertains to businesses and startups, could also have led to the spike.

“It has displaced the word society. Now we see college course titles like ‘Culture through Film.’ It’s simply a shift, a broad shift,” said Sokolowski. “The fact is, we can’t say there was one single reason. The point is this is a data-driven mission, and we want to report with honesty and tell the truth about these words, and whether we know why or not, this is what Americans are looking up.”

Trailing behind culture on the company’s website this year were the words nostalgia, legacy, feminism, innovation, and the French term “je ne sais quoi.”

Like culture, Sokolowski said each one is attached to a sort of current event, so to speak, which drives people to turn to online references when looking for a better understanding of what’s popular in society. He said “je ne sais quoi” was a popular term on because of a Sonic fast-food commercial that used the phrase when advertising boneless chicken wings.

“We are in an economy of clicks online, and we can’t determine what will trigger people’s curiosity,” he said.

That’s just the nature of our current culture.