October 19, 2005

words of the month

in a monthly newsletter to customers who subscribe to their unabridged or collegiate dictionary, merriam-webster lists the words that are looked up most frequently in a given month, thereby allowing us to see which words are rising in popularity in the long term or due to a specific event. in some cases it's easy to see why. for example, in september 2005, refugee was at the top of the list (due to the devastating consequences of hurricane katrina and the discussion about whether or not it was appropriate to refer to u.s.-citizens as refugees). as the word of the month, it gets its own profile in the newsletter:

Word Profile: refugee

Hurricane Katrina was a meteorological storm, but it also created a linguistic storm of controversy over the use of the word refugee. And like Katrina, this was a Category Five storm. During the height of the controversy, refugee was being looked up approximately 1,000 times an hour. The dictionary itself provided most of the answer, but here’s the rest of the story.

During September, refugee set a new record for number of look-ups in a month (the previous record-holder was tsunami), and at one point in the controversy, refugee was being looked up approximately 1,000 times an hour. Defenders of this use of the word pointed to the dictionary definition (such as the one below from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary) as evidence that the use was legitimate:

refugee noun : one that flees; especially : a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution

Surely, they said, the first and more general definition applies here. Many critics of the use, however, insisted that refugee is only applied to non-U.S. citizens, thinking perhaps of the frequent use of the word in combination with Palestinian, Afghan, Cuban, or Vietnamese; hence, in their view, its use in this case was inappropriate and insensitive.

As usual in such controversies, both sides were partially right. Defenders were right that almost every dictionary published allows for a very general sense of refugee that would certainly apply to those who fled from Katrina.

On the other hand, critics were right to point to the more limited application of the word. The Merriam-Webster citation file includes more than a thousand examples of the use of refugee collected since the early 1980’s, and in none of those examples is refugee used to describe U.S. citizens displaced by a storm or other natural disaster.

In almost all cases, the word is used either figuratively (“refugees from the dot.com revolution,” “refugees from the heat and humidity;” hence the ongoing need for the general definition), or it is used in accordance with the second definition listed above: “a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution.”

One point was generally missed in the debate. It is not true, as some suggested, that refugee is only used to describe the poor or those lacking high social status. Refugee has been regularly used and is still used to refer to the many Europeans – of all levels of income, education, and social status – who fled the Nazis before and during World War II. So you don’t have to be poor to be a refugee, but you usually do have to cross an international border.

apparently, people also tried to look up marshal law, which of course doesn't exist, it should have been martial law. but it's easy to get confused when the incorrect spelling is used all over the internet, for example in this article on msnbc.

a "one-day wonder"(sep. 13) was stare decisis, an expression used by justice john roberts in his confirmation hearings.

september's top twenty also include old friends, such as effect and affect, ubiquitous and ambiguous and blog. the latter makes you think about reasons for looking up a word - some may be looked up for their meaning and some for their spelling. however, if you don't know the spelling to begin with, how can you look up the word? if you type in "marshal law", for example, merriam-webster comes up with this:

The word you've entered isn't in the dictionary. Click on a spelling suggestion below or try again using the search box to the right.

Suggestions for marshal law:
1. marshall
2. Marshall
3. marshal
4. marshalls
5. marshals
6. marchese
7. Mercian
8. marched
9. marcher
10. marchen

as you can see, the options they give are based on similarity in spelling, not on similarity in pronunciation.

you don't need to be a subscriber to follow the work of the lexicographers at merriam-webster. their open dictionary invites you to submit new word and look at words that are under consideration for inclusion in the standard dictionary. i was amazed when i read that currently the editors are giving the words biodiesel ("a fuel that is similar to diesel fuel and is derived usually from vegetable sources"), drama queen ("a person given to often excessively emotional performances or reactions") and phishing ("a scam by which an e-mail user is duped into revealing personal or confidential information which the scammer can use illicitly") consideration. i thought these would all have been included for some time.

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