Exploring the Zeitgeist Through Language Usage

I recently came across an interesting feature on the site of one of the more popular free online dictionaries, Merriam-Webster Online.  The feature in question is a set of three lists, each noting the most popular searches on the site over time periods including the past 24 hours, the past week and the past four months.

Though some words are necessarily searched with greater frequency than others, it is probably also true that the search of some words is a function of how often they are being used in the media. Which led me to consider how well the search of certain words can capture the mood of the moment; in other words, can a story be told, and there is no pun intended here, through the words that are in high usage at any given time.

I think, to some extent, that the answer could be yes. Of course it would be very difficult to extrapolate a story using a list of words. However with both in hand, it is not nearly as difficult to determine how stories are being defined by commentators. For example, it is not too difficult to think about how the following words relate to a current story about a certain member (again, no pun intended) from New York: weiner (I promise this is on there, and yes, one last time, no pun intended), cynical, didactic, integrity, hypocrite, pretentious, ubiquitous, conundrum, debauchery and lewd all show on the trending list from the past week.

On a similar note, schadenfreude shows up on the trending list from the past 24 hours. Staying with the political theme, none of the following should be surprising as campaign 2012 kicks into high gear: insidious, hypocrite, integrity, cynical, tenacious, paradigm, democracy, endeavor and empathy all show up on the list of trending words of the past four months.

Merriam-Webster actually plays this game itself on its 'Trend Watch' page. This can be helpful as it pinpoints exact dates when the terms spiked as well as the stories around them. It points out, once again, the term 'lewd,' linking it to Congressman Weiner. Other interesting searches included 'martyr' (after Osama Bin Laden's death and after Muammar el-Qaddafi used it in a speech), 'Godspeed' (during the final mission of spaceship Endeavour), 'prefecture' (after the Japanese earthquake), 'doppelganger' (after the author of Eat, Pray, Love was interviewed on 'Good Morning America') and 'rapture' (after, well, it didn't happen).

Nothing here is going to save the world. However, for those interested in exploring both current news topics and how they are being reported, it is another tool in what is becoming a happily crowded shed.

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