by Alastair Horne
Here at Cambridge, we’ve been busy looking at actual searches in our online dictionaries to find the people’s Words of the Year. We’re committed to reflecting real-world corpus evidence in our dictionary entries. That’s why we’ve been looking for the words that have been searched for far more than expected – words whose searches have ‘spiked’.
So, which words spiked most often – and most sharply – in 2015? Which words did our dictionary users around the world search for far more than expected? And which of these words have we chosen as the People’s Word of the Year?
As we looked through the data for 2015, it became clear that there could only be one possible option. No other word was searched for as often, and as regularly, as this one. On five separate occasions this year, one word topped our weekly list of searched-for words; for the year as a whole, one word was way out in front for searches. And that word was ‘austerity’.
Seven years on from the global crash that did so much damage to the world economy, ‘austerity’ is still the word our dictionary users keep searching for. With elections across Europe all focusing on tough economic decisions, searches for ‘austerity’ saw a small initial spike in January, during the Greek elections, before much larger peaks in May, June, and July during and after the elections in Britain. A further, smaller, spike came in September, around the time of the Portuguese elections, and searches remained higher than usual for the rest of the year.
Austerity wasn’t the only instance of politics influencing the words that people searched for. When British Prime Minister David Cameron controversially referred to migrants in Calais, France as a ‘swarm,’ his choice of vocabulary attracted not only criticism from refugee groups, but also a great many searches for the word on Cambridge Dictionaries Online.
Similarly, when searches for ‘horse-trading’ peaked in March, the cause was another election, this time in India, when one party accused another of ‘horse-trading’ – making agreements to benefit both sides – after a vote had failed to deliver any party a majority.
All of our words of the year have stories behind them, and one of the most unexpected spikes of 2015 was also a little embarrassing. When a coding error on Cambridge Dictionaries Online mistakenly mixed up the audio recording of the word ‘Pennsylvania’ with the definition for ‘Parmesan’, we suddenly found ourselves going viral, as sites like Reddit and Buzzfeed attracted the attention of Pennsylvanian residents and Italian cheese lovers alike. We swiftly fixed the error, and searches for ‘Parmesan’ are now back to normal levels after their brief moment in the spotlight.
Sport and popular culture also continue to be a major influence on searches. When Brazilian footballer Neymar was accused of ‘showboating’ in the final of the Spanish Copa del Rey in May, annoying opponents by showing off his skills, football fans turned to Cambridge Dictionaries Online to learn the meaning of that term. And searches for ‘compos mentis’ surged earlier in the year when Madonna reassured fans around the world that she had received the all-clear from medical staff following her embarrassing and painful tumble at a music awards ceremony.
So, what do we learn from this? We’ve learned once more that you’re inquisitive types, you users of Cambridge Dictionaries Online – you’ve got a keen desire to understand the world about you, and to improve your English while you’re doing so. And we’ll be happy to be here for you again in 2016. We wish you all the best over the holiday period, and if you’d like to find out more about the words of this particular season, we’ve got a special treat for you here.