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“Surreal.” It was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year.
What does it mean? You may have some idea through usage, but Merriam-Webster defines “surreal” as “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream.”
“We also give as its synonyms ‘unbelievable’ and ‘fantastic.’ It’s a relatively new word in English, and derives from ‘surrealism,’ the artistic movement of the early 1900s that attempted to depict the unconscious mind in dreamlike ways as ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ reality,” M-W editor Peter Sokolowski reports. “‘Surreal’ itself dates to the 1930s, and was first defined in a Merriam-Webster dictionary in 1967.
Visitors to the online dictionary looked up the word “surreal” in 2016 more than any other word.
“‘Surreal’ had three major spikes in interest that were higher in volume and were sustained for longer periods of time than in past years. In March, the word was used in coverage of the Brussels terror attacks,” writes Sokolowski. “Then, in July, we saw the word spike again: It was used in descriptions of the coup attempt in Turkey and in coverage of the terrorist attack in Nice. Finally, we saw the largest spike in look-ups for ‘surreal’ following the U.S. election in November.”
According to Sokolowski, “surreal” is often looked up spontaneously in moments of both tragedy and surprise, whether or not it is used in speech or writing.
“This is not surprising: we often search for just the right word to help us bring order to abstract thoughts, emotions or reactions,” he says. “‘Surreal’ seems to be, for 2016, such a word.”