2011 – interesting times, interesting searches

by Dom Glennon

“May you live in interesting times” is, according to legend, an ancient Chinese curse. Whether this is true or not, there is no doubt that 2011 was an interesting year to be alive, and rarely for good reasons – disasters, revolutions, assassinations, and all set to a backdrop of huge economic uncertainty. So how were these momentous events reflected in searches on Cambridge Dictionaries Online, and what were the most popular searches  last year?

In March, the world watched on in horror as Japan reeled from an earthquake followed by a tsunami, which then looked like causing a meltdown in the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Looking at the records, in the week of March 10-17, we see a big increase in searches for tsunami, catastrophe and meltdown, and words such as avert, debris and aftermath also appear high in the search rankings.

It wasn’t all bad news, of course – in April, the UK celebrated the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton, and here at About Words we played our part with Wedding Words by Kate Woodford, which soon became our most popular post ever. Surprisingly, the words that enjoyed the biggest boost in searches by the event were not included in the post – these were duke and duchess, surely due to the couple’s new titles: the Duke and Duchess of…Cambridge, of course! Another ‘search spike’ occurred just a few days later for beatify, when the Vatican declared the previous Pope John Paul II ‘blessed’, a step towards making the former Pope a saint.

In the UK particularly in 2011, it seemed the media made the news as much as they reported it. First, there was considerable interest in celebrities taking out ‘super-injunctions’ to protect themselves from damaging stories being reported, and sure enough, we see considerable increases in searches for injunction during the months of April and May, with a particular spike around May 23rd when interest in the story reached its peak. Then a long-running investigation into the use of phone-hacking by newspaper journalists erupted in July when evidence emerged that victims of crime had had their phones hacked, eventually leading to the closure of one of the UK’s oldest newspapers, The News Of The World. Although we see only a moderate increase in searches for hack during this period, there is a noticeable spike in searches for a word less obviously connected to the story: humble, as used by Rupert Murdoch when he had to face a Commons Select Committee on July 19th: “this is the most humble day of my life”.

In July, we were appalled by events in Norway when Anders Behring Breivik opened fire on a youth camp, killing more than 70 teenagers and injuring many more. In the days that followed, we can see significant increases in searches on a number of words relating to the events: massacre, atrocity, and spree (no doubt preceded by the word killing).

Less than a month later, it was the UK at the centre of the world’s attention when, over the course of a few days, shops were looted and buildings set on fire as a series of riots spread across the country. While opinion differed on whether the rioting was a socio-political response to economic cuts or the actions of a lazy and irresponsible generation seizing an opportunity to get something for nothing, it generated considerable activity on Cambridge Dictionaries Online, with big increases in searches for riot, loot, looting and looter, and also a smaller increase for turmoil.

Look out for part 2 soon, in which Dom continues his report on the searches of the year, and reveals the top searches of 2011!

7 thoughts on “2011 – interesting times, interesting searches

  1. Harry

    I’m struck by the many foreign-language loan words we use to describe very bad events. “Tsunami” is Japanese, “catastrophe” is Greek, “debris” and “massacre” are French. Perhaps there’s a psychological need to distance ourselves, linguistically and emotionally, from these fearful phenomena.

  2. sobreira

    I’d rather think that is because of the high percentage of foreign words in English, starting from the French Norman ages. Or at least, the great amount of couples anglo-saxon vs. foreign (mainly Latin): marvellous-wonderful, see-visualize, writing-scripture-inscription, etc.
    About the Greek and Latin words, I think it’s normal for a European language to have a lot of them. It would be amazing to find them in Swahili, Tamasheq, Guarani, Urdu or Djirbal.
    As English language has spread over the world (England, Australia, US, East Central Africa, India) it had to deal and borrow a lot of new concepts, so they were then incorporated and used when needed.
    Are there any statistics on English ethymology? Can be they compared to another languages? I mean: Spanish is told to have a great Arabic influence, but actually I don’t think that more than five-ten thousands words in Spanish come from Arabic. Some very usual, by no means, but it’s that a so overwhelming percentage compared to English?

  3. sobreira

    For Spanish, 75 % or even more come from Latin. “The remaining 25 percent come from other languages. Of these languages (and language families), the four which have contributed the most words are Arabic, Indigenous languages of the Americas, Germanic, and Celtic”. I’ve read in other place that for Arabic and Greek combined is 15 %. The rest (10 %), for Basque, Amerindian, Germanic,…

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