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The folks who bring you the Merriam-Webster dictionary select their top words of the year not by how trendy or new they are, but by which words are the most looked up in their online dictionary. This year, nine of the top ten words are easily linked to big news stories. For example, the word people look up more than any other was “admonish”, which had to do with Rep. Joe Wilson’s interruption of president Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress in September.

Wilson’s interruption wasn’t exactly an act of admonishing, since that word (defined by the Visual Thesaurus as “warn strongly” or “take to task”) usually implies a gentler, not so confrontational approach. Admonish made the news the following week when the House of Representatives voted on a resolution disapproving of Wilson’s conduct. The resolution wasn’t so strong as a rebuke or censure, so admonish fit the bill in many of the press descriptions.

The other words on the list are…

The rest of Merriam-Webster’s Top Ten can similarly be linked to news stories of the past year — except for one:

  • emaciated (“very thin especially from disease or hunger or cold”): from reports of Michael Jackson’s condition at the time of his death
  • empathy (“understanding and entering into another’s feelings”): from President Obama’s remark that U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor would bring a “quality of empathy” to the bench
  • furlough (“a temporary leave of absence, as from military duty”): from the unpaid furloughs that many employers gave to workers to weather the recession
  • inaugurate (“commence officially; open ceremoniously”): from the inauguration of President Obama in January
  • pandemic (“epidemic over a wide geographical area”): from news that swine flu had reached pandemic proportions
  • philanderer (“a man who enters into casual affairs with women”): from South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s notorious rendezvous with his Argentine lover
  • repose (“to lie at rest”): from the funeral ceremonies for Sen. Edward Kennedy, when his body lay in repose at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
  • rogue (“a deceitful and unreliable scoundrel”): from the title of Sarah Palin’s best-selling memoir, Going Rogue. (Merriam-Webster explains: “When used in the phrase ‘going rogue,’ the word is used as an adjective. The relevant adjectival sense is: resembling or suggesting a rogue elephant especially in being isolated, aberrant, dangerous, or uncontrollable.”)

The one runner-up on Merriam-Webster’s list without any identifiable news hook is nugatory, meaning “of no real value.” Merriam-Webster’s editor at large Peter Sokolowski wondered on Twitter, “why were people looking it up in such huge numbers?” I think the spike may have been largely due to an Aug. 17 column on Examiner.com by Sharalyn Hartwell entitled, “Top 10 nugatory things we say.” (Hartwell even linked to Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word.) On the day that her column appeared, nugatory topped Google Trends, indicating that it was the hot search term of the moment.

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