Interesting times, interesting searches part 2: the top 50 searches of 2011

by Dom Glennon

Continuing our look at the major events of 2011 and how they were reflected in searches on Cambridge Dictionaries Online, and the most popular searches of the year…

On October 3rd, Amanda Knox and Rafaele Sollecito were found not guilty of involvement in the murder of Meredith Kerchner, in a case that gripped the attention of the world. Suitably around that time, we see a big increase in searches for appeal and acquit.

Just a few days later, Apple co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs died at the age of 56. As the principal creator of such products as the Apple Mac, iPod and iPhone, Jobs had a huge influence on technology and thus on society itself. Around the time of his death and just after, we can see big increases in searches on visionary, apple and also pancreatic, the form of cancer of which he died.

The year’s two biggest stories, the global economic crisis and uprisings in the Middle East, have, perhaps surprisingly, had less obvious effects on search habits than the incidents previously mentioned. However, austerity, the prescribed remedy for debt-ridden nations, has been a popular search term all year long, with a noticeable spike on June 29th, when the Greek parliament voted on a new austerity bill. And there has been a general increase in interest in bailouts and bailing out, particularly on April 7th when the Portuguese government asked the European Union for financial help.

Sometimes it’s not so easy to trace the source of some ‘search spikes’: eat your heart out, already a surprisingly popular search, had a huge increase on May 11th – can this all be due to an episode of Glee in which a character says the line “Eat your heart out, Kate Middleton!”? And a parliamentary vote in the UK on membership of the European Union was hardly a momentous event, so why it led to a huge surge in searches for three-line whip on October 24th, we can only guess – if anyone can shine any light on the reasons for these searches, please let us know.

And so we come to the rundown of the most popular searches of the year. Most of the previous incidents mentioned were too short-lived to put a word into the year’s top 50, and we can only speculate as to why these words are so popular. Some are classic confusables or spelling errors, for example, affect and effect, through, though and thought, advice and advise; others are just common words, such as the, get and take. And some are just plain mystifying: why do so many people go to an online dictionary to search for the word dictionary – by far the most common search? Although it’s nice to think that people come to us looking for love, or even an experience. So here are the top 50 searches of 2011 in full:

  1. dictionary
  2. bear
  3. eat your heart out
  4. lead
  5. concern
  6. lie
  7. issue
  8. despite
  9. appreciate
  10. schedule
  11. though
  12. effect
  13. through
  14. affect
  15. raise
  16. advice
  17. enhance
  18. provide
  19. regard
  20. endeavour
  21. get
  22. mean
  23. work
  24. claim
  25. advise
  26. take
  27. pursue
  28. the
  29. approach
  30. look
  31. thought
  32. experience
  33. lay
  34. whether
  35. implement
  36. consider
  37. lose
  38. feature
  39. appeal
  40. assess
  41. content
  42. love
  43. seek
  44. subtle
  45. rise
  46. hold
  47. keen
  48. practice
  49. draw
  50. effort

On the whole, it was a year in which Cambridge Dictionaries Online went from strength to strength, and we only hope to keep improving the site for our millions of users in 2012. From all of us at Cambridge Dictionaries Online, we’d like to wish you a very happy, prosperous and dare we say more boring 2012!

3 thoughts on “Interesting times, interesting searches part 2: the top 50 searches of 2011

  1. Harry

    I can’t help noting that almost all of the words on this list have two or more meanings, sometimes contradictory and often very different. “Bear,” for instance, is both a verb — meaning to carry, as a weight, or to endure, as a moral burden — and a noun, describing a species of large furry mammals. Perhaps the publicity about the effect of global warming on polar bears generated your peak.

    Back in the ’70s, the rock band The Mamas and the Papas had a song called “Five Meanings of ‘Love,'” whose lyrics were taken directly from a dictionary. The last of them is a shout-out to today’s readers in Australia: “‘Love’ in tennis means no points scored.”

    Then there are the words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently (“lead” verb LEED “to guide or direct” and “lead” noun LED “a heavy metalic element, symbol Pb”) and the words even native speakers confuse (lie/lay/lain vs. lay/laid/laid).

    In short, I’m not sure if your survey reflects trends in usage or just the arbitrary nature of the English language. But I am so glad I had stern teachers in elementary school!

    1. Hi Harry, polysemy (having multiple meanings) is undoubtedly one major factor in what people tend to search for, but it is not the only one – spelling and confusability must be high on the list, too. Some words on the list have only 1 or 2 meanings, and there are many highly polysemous words (set, put, go, come) that are not on the list (or anywhere near it). I have just noticed that the definition for ‘though’ contains the word ‘despite’ though, and wonder if there is a certain inter-dependency going on here…

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