Science, cognitive, rapport, communication, niche

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What do those five words have in common?

Michael Quinion, World Wide Words Newsletter 862, 12/14/2013:

Words of the year The track record for words of the year has not always been impressive (does anybody still speak of information superhighway or Bushlips?). This may be why Merriam-Webster took the editorial eye out of the equation and resorted to statistics in choosing its word for 2013. Its online dictionary gets about 100 million accesses every month, so there’s no shortage of data. It checked the words that have been looked up most often and selected those that show the greatest increase this year compared with last. This led to a disappointingly mundane result: the word that came out on top with an increase of 176% and so became word of the year is science. Peter Sokolowski, Editor-at-Large at Merriam-Webster, noted, “A wide variety of discussions centered on science this year, from climate change to educational policy. We saw heated debates about ‘phony’ science, or whether science held all the answers.” The rest of the top five are equally unexciting: cognitiverapportcommunication and niche.

"Unexciting"? As the former director of Penn's Institute for Research in Cognitive Science, I'm stoked.

More on this from Kaly Steinmetz, "And Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year Is…", Time 12/3/2013, including a longer list of 10 words whose frequency-of-being-looked-up increased by the larger percentages:

1 science 176%
2 cognitive 158%
3 rapport 145%
4 communication 139%
5 niche 138%
6 ethic 134%
7 paradox 130%
8 visceral 130%
9 integrity 127%
10 metaphor 124%


  1. chris said,

    December 14, 2013 @ 6:27 pm

    I'm stoked that 'metaphor' is #10! Imma tell Lakoff.

  2. D.O. said,

    December 14, 2013 @ 6:46 pm

    It's a bit silly to ask for any degree of rigor in pursuits like this, but. I think it behooves MW to inform us how the total number of searches changed in a year. Also, normally "increase of 176%" would mean that now/then ratio is 2.76. This is so impressive that needs some commenting on (unless, of course, MW has become much more widely used, see quibble #1).

  3. TR said,

    December 14, 2013 @ 7:26 pm

    Vaguely on-topic (hey, it's about science!): Prof. Liberman, any thoughts on the recent "sex differences in brain wiring" study by your UPenn colleague Ragini Verma, described in last week's Economist? It's not directly about language, but since this has been a recurring theme on Language Log, and these results look more convincing to my layman's eye than the Louann Brizendine stuff you've demolished here before, I'd be curious to hear what you make of them.

  4. Shlomo Argamon said,

    December 14, 2013 @ 7:37 pm

    This is the year cognitive science will improve the integrity of ethical communication and paradoxically build visceral rapport between niches via metaphor!

  5. GeorgeW said,

    December 14, 2013 @ 8:48 pm

    @chris: I am probably wrong, but I suspect that 'analogy, ' simile' and 'metaphor' are merging into 'metaphor.' So, the increase in lookups could be related to this.

  6. blahedo said,

    December 14, 2013 @ 9:21 pm

    I'd be curious to see the rates of lookups for these ten words (and others) bucketed by month, or even by week—was there some particular event in the world that was triggering a sudden spike or surge? Was it slow growth throughout the year?

    And once you have that data, you could also ask the question: is something more "word-of-the-year"-y if it increased the year's lookups via a sudden localised spike (that still averaged out to a large increase) or if its increase was more broadly-based? What about if its increase this year was due more to an atypical slump last year? How much like a bowling average _is_ this, anyway?

  7. Mark W. said,

    December 14, 2013 @ 10:01 pm

    Merriam-Webster's "Trend Watch" feature doesn't list any of these words for any weeks this year, which suggests that it was probably a slow growth rather than a spike, which would likely register enough to end up on Trend Watch too. (It does list "visceral" for one week *last* year, but not this year.)

  8. Steve said,

    December 14, 2013 @ 11:30 pm

    Because most people know the meaning of "science" in a general way, I'm trying to understand what would cause large numbers of them to look it up in a dictionary.

  9. maidhc said,

    December 14, 2013 @ 11:38 pm

    Steve: Maybe they looked up "cognitive science".

  10. Steve said,

    December 15, 2013 @ 12:28 am

    maidhc: Possibly. It's hard to know what this means exactly: "[Merriam-Webster] checked the words that have been looked up most often and selected those that show the greatest increase this year compared with last." It seems odd to select "science" as the word of the year if it's being looked up as part of a combo like "cognitive science."

  11. suntzuanime said,

    December 15, 2013 @ 1:11 am

    I imagine people wanted a dictionary definition to clobber the other side of an argument with, in a lot of cases.

  12. Rubrick said,

    December 15, 2013 @ 5:36 am

    This selection technique seems ripe for gaming. It would be pretty trivial to write a relatively low-volume bot which would artificially pump up the lookups for a suitably amusing word over the course of a year.

  13. Chris said,

    December 15, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

    @GeorgeW – fair point. I definitely agree that "metaphor" is used in a wide variety of ways that have little to do with traditional linguistics metaphor. Maybe Alanis Morissette can write a song "Isn't it metaphorical?"

  14. Rod Johnson said,

    December 15, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

    "Traditional linguistics metaphor"? What would that be? As far as I know, metaphor was a pretty peripheral topic in linguistics before Lakoff & Johnson, and still is in many ways. What tradition are you talking about?

  15. chris said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 11:46 am

    Rod, I'm referring to the Lakoff tradition. After 30+ years, I think it has earned central place.

  16. KevinM said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 11:54 am


  17. Rod Johnson said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 7:13 pm

    I think the relatedness of metaphor, analogy and simile cited by GeorgeW long predate Lakoff, even in linguistics. There was a lot of work (of debatable significance) on analogy in the 1970s (e.g. Raimo Anttila, Analogy, 1977), and the whole family of concepts was discussed as one of the two "poles" of language in Jakobson and Halle (Fundamentals of Language, 1956), which builds on Jakobson's work from the 40s. Lakoff's work has certainly sold more books, but I don't believe it should be viewed as the "traditional" approach. (I realize this is more about the "politics" of the field than about substance.)

  18. Mark Dowson said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 8:50 am

    I'm amazed that "metadata" didn't make it. Next year, maybe.

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