Every year, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary selects a word of the year. The selection isn’t a declaration from on high by the dictionary folks about what word matters most–rather, it’s a data-driven selection determined by what word has been searched for most frequently on the company’s website, factoring in for spikes in the numbers of searches for that word as compared to previous years.
Frequently, the word of the year reflects the anxieties of the moment. In 2003, as the Iraq War kicked off, that word was “democracy”; in 2006, the word was the Colbert-ism “truthiness”; 2008 gave us “bailout,” and 2010 offered “austerity.” For 2016, there’s really only one word that made sense to describe the blur of nonsense that was this moment in history, and that word is “surreal.”
According to Merriam-Webster, “surreal” spiked multiple times throughout the year: after the terror attack in Brussels in March, after the coup attempt in Turkey over the summer, and after the terrorist attack in Nice–and, of course, on November 9, after the if-you-scripted-it-it’d-be-too-unbelievable election of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America.
Merriam-Webster defines “surreal” as “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream,” which is a fine definition. (Good work, dictionary!) But it’s also tricky, if the word is so frequently sought by people to describe very real, and increasingly common, circumstances. The word was coined to describe an artistic movement that began in the 1920s and ’30s–a time period in which coup attempts, terror attacks, and the rise of demagogues to power were not exactly rarities. If we’re reaching for “surreal” to describe those things now, has the meaning of the word changed?
“From what we’ve seen, the meaning hasn’t changed at all: ‘Surreal’ has been used to refer to something that’s both real and unbelievable since at least the middle of the 20th century,” explains Kory Stamper, associate editor for Merriam-Webster. “The earliest written uses we have so far are connected with the art movement, but it’s not surprising that the word was used of things that evoked the weirdness of surrealism.”
Stamper is untroubled at the idea that “surreal” can be used to describe both things that are real and things that are impossible, too–and speaking on behalf of a dictionary, she has given the idea of words with multiple, occasionally contradictory definitions a good deal of thought. “The great thing about English is that it’s so flexible,” she says, noting that this “drives some people bonkers.” Context is key, and people tend to understand that implicitly. “Our evidence shows that ‘surreal’ is still used of the surrealists and their work–the context where the word appears usually makes it clear whether you’re talking about the art in the new Dali cookbook or the latest news. If people want to make absolutely sure that no one confuses their meaning, they can always use ‘surrealist,’ since our evidence shows that as an adjective, it’s almost always in reference to the artistic and literary movement.”
Meanwhile, if the year made you feel like you were staring at a melting clock or like your face had been replaced by a green apple, at least you weren’t alone in those feelings.