As an editor, I consult online dictionaries on a daily—sometimes hourly or momentary—basis. Occasionally, I need to learn the meaning of a word with which I am unfamiliar. More often, my goal is to confirm a term’s style—whether it’s one word, two words, hyphenated, capitalized, etc. For a conservative opinion, I go to Merriam-Webster. For the prevailing usage of a contemporary word or phrase, I visit Dictionary.com. If I can’t find a ruling in either place, I search for a New York Times article containing the term, and mimic its treatment there. Now you know my word-referencing secrets. (Be grateful I spared you my Web-thesauri strategies.)
As if looking up words in dictionaries weren’t exciting enough, these online resources now offer amusing lexical statistics. Last month, Dictionary.com introduced its “difficulty index,” which ranks words based on their complexity and frequency of use. Here are the various categories, with examples of each:
- All English speakers likely know this word (book, dog, house)
- Most English speakers likely know this word (aluminum, butterfly, secretary)
- Many English speakers likely know this word (chlorophyll, encyclopedia, pancreas)
- Some English speakers likely know this word (begonia, marjoram, paranormal)
- Few English speakers likely know this word (glockenspiel, kerflop, macrobiotic)
I have spent an embarrassing amount of time looking up words and trying to guess their difficulty levels. I suspect the algorithm may be flawed, however, because cupcake comes up as a term that few English speakers are likely to know (yet I’m pretty sure it was my first word). Further, I think the classifications could be a little more practical:
- Using this word will make you sound snobbish.
- This word is not acceptable in Words With Friends.
- Microsoft Word puts an annoying red squiggle under this word.
- Do not attempt to use this abstruse word in a sentence. (This category would include the word abstruse.)
- Only James Woods knows the meaning of this word. (The Academy Award–nominated actor has an IQ of 180!)
Another entertaining (and addicting) dictionary tool is Merriam-Webster’s popularity meter, which indicates how frequently a word has been looked up in the last seven days, compared with other words, and whether it is on an upward trend. For example, at the moment of this writing, factoid is in the top 1 percent of lookups, is the site’s most popular word, and is a “fast mover”—that is, it has increased significantly in lookups over the past week. (The foregoing brief and unimportant piece of information is an example of a factoid.)
Last week, when I checked Merriam-Webster’s list of most popular words, I found a very peculiar item at the top: chin music. I understood why people would need to look up this rather obscure term (according to Dictionary.com, few English speakers are likely to know it), but why were they searching for it now? The only potential reason I could discover was a recent sports article with the phrase in its title. (In baseball, “chin music” refers to a high inside pitch meant to intimidate the batter. It’s also slang for idle talk.)
Merriam-Webster lists the most popular words for three recent periods: 24 hours, seven days, and four months. The following words appear in the top 25 in all three categories, demonstrating continued popularity: bigot, comradery, empathy, holistic, insidious, integrity, pedantic (the most popular word in the last 120 days), and pragmatic. I’m not sure what to make of this collection of terms, but it strikes me as reflective of the duality of the human experience: empathy, comradery, and integrity versus bigotry and insidiousness.
I hope this post hasn’t been overly pedantic.