Merriam-Webster has come out with the top 10 words of 2010, based on search volume: austerity, pragmatic, moratorium, socialism, bigot, doppelganger, shellacking, ebullient, dissident and furtive.
Looking at the events which led to a spike in each term's search volume gives us an interesting view of the passing year. At least a couple of these were associated with stories that I completely missed the first time around. The search and usage patterns also give an interesting window into the shaping of our collective lexicon.
MW doesn't make their raw data available as far as I can tell, but fortunately Google Trends gives us plenty of search-traffic data to play with.
(Blockquotes used for formatting, since nothing else seems to work.)
Doppelganger: Facebook in February
Story that touched it off: "Doppelganger Week"
Furtive: Manhattan in May
Story that touched it off: Police search for a man seen on security video "looking over his shoulder in a furtive manner" after failed Times Square bombing. (Anybody have a theory about the March spike?)
Moratorium: Houston in June
Story that touched it off: Moratorium on offshore drilling due to the BP catastrophuck.
Dissident: Oslo in October
Story that touched it off: Awarding of Nobel Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
Ebullient: Chile in October
Story that touched it off: Ebullient emergence of the trapped Chilean miners.
Shellacking: November in America
Story that touched if off: Obama saying Dems got a shellacking in the November 2010 election
Pragmatic: All year long, all the world around
Interestingly, there's no dramatic spike for this word. There is a relatively mild rise in search volume in October, but no corresponding increase in news coverage. Not sure what might have caused the October jump, assuming it's more than noise; something related to the election campaign?
It's interesting that it takes a certain level of salience in news reports before a term starts sending people to the search engines and dictionaries. Thus, minor frequency spikes in news coverage tend to be smoothed out, while major spikes in news coverage are often reflected by much larger spikes in search traffic. I think this reflects the way that we normally deal with low-frequency words; most of the time, we can get by with a vague gloss or no gloss at all, but once they get to the point that we can't even understand or talk about a major story without these words, it's necessary to get a better handle on the exact meaning.
This might have lessons for the effective spreading of "frames" and "memes" as well, insofar as these are at least partially lexical in nature. There may be an optimal "pile-on point" at which it is much more effective to add momentum to an emerging but imperfect frame rather than trying to develop a new and better one. With the tools now at our disposal, it ought to be possible to measure and identify these effects in (almost) real time.
Sentence or paragraph of the year?
How would you put these words together to describe the past year? Here's my effort:
Ebullient bigots and their furtive, pragmatic doppelgangers declared a moratorium on socialism and gave dissidents a shellacking, all in the name of austerity.
Slate has a different take:
[A] number of countries have chosen austerity. But austerity—ahem, eschewing socialism, acting like Hoover's doppelgänger, retaining your bigotry about debt, being ebullient about fiscal belt-tightening and putting a moratorium on unnecessary spending, making furtive any dissident Keynesian thoughts so as to avoid a shellacking by the bond markets—might not be the most pragmatic solution.
The floor is open for additional nominations...