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From 'Unproud' To 'Hombre,' Election 2016 Is Testing Our Vocabulary

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

With big league hombres and bigly hombres, nasty women and swaths of swatches, the presidential campaign has had a vocabulary all its own. And Merriam-Webster noticed. The dictionary has been using its Twitter account to report what words people have been searching for most and to clear up any misconceptions. I learned, for instance, that unproud is in fact a word. Peter Sokolowski is a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, and he joins us now from our member station WFCR to tell us how the 2016 election is affecting our vocabulary. Hi, Peter.

PETER SOKOLOWSKI: How are you?

MARTIN: I am doing well. So many words. So many words.

SOKOLOWSKI: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So let's get through some of these. You've been tracking on your Twitter feed what words people look up most during debates. So what was trending on Wednesday night during the last presidential debate?

SOKOLOWSKI: Without question, the winner was bigly and hombre, those two words which were used by Donald Trump or apparently used by Donald Trump. I think he actually said big league.

MARTIN: Thank you, because I maintain that he actually said big league.

SOKOLOWSKI: Yeah.

MARTIN: Two separate words, not bigly. But...

SOKOLOWSKI: Sure.

MARTIN: ...Apparently, I'm alone.

SOKOLOWSKI: No, you're not. Linguists have discussed this and have studied it. And in fact, it does seem that he said big league. Part of the reason is our ears are keyed in a certain way. We're English speakers, and we don't expect to hear big league used as an adverb. That was the odd piece of it.

MARTIN: That's true.

SOKOLOWSKI: And so we naturally think bigly with that L-Y ending, which does, you know, cue the adverb.

MARTIN: Huh. What else were people looking for?

SOKOLOWSKI: Well, hombre is interesting in the sense that people didn't know how to spell it. So one of the things that we see online is the different attempts that are made. So they landed on ombre, O-M-B-R-E, which is the French word for shadow. It's also the name for, I think, a card game or something in English, which is why it's there. And also umber with a U, which is, of course, the color. And so they landed on these different pages kind of searching for the correct word, which reminds me of Aleppo. There's a combining form, lepo-, L-E-P-O, which people landed on because Aleppo is the name of a city, which is also in the dictionary, but people didn't know how to spell it.

MARTIN: Ah. So people were just searching for lepo- instead of...

SOKOLOWSKI: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Aleppo. Got you.

SOKOLOWSKI: One thing that I have found with - especially with debates in real-time is that people look up words that are very surprising. For example, people look up the word debate itself at the very beginning of debates and the word moderator. And sometimes I get feedback on Twitter - for example, people will say, you know, boy, I really feel sorry for the American public if they don't know what debate means.

But I say something else. I say that curiosity is not ignorance. And what I mean by that is most of us as adults, when we go to the dictionary, we're looking for something subtle. We're looking for something deeper. We're looking for some - it could be the etymology, the word history of debate. It could be a simple question - does a debate need to be between two people, or is a moderator always a neutral party? You know, that kind of thing.

In other words, there are kind of encyclopedic questions that can be answered in the dictionary as well. And I don't register a sort of signal of ignorance when we see the curiosity of the public.

MARTIN: So you're saying that it doesn't necessarily mean that someone doesn't understand what the word debate means, but they're searching for some kind of greater contextual understanding of the word.

SOKOLOWSKI: Absolutely. In fact, the words that are looked up every day, day in, day out, regardless of the news, are words that are kind of abstract and tough, words like integrity or paradigm or ubiquitous. These are kind of SAT words, but they're words that I think adults feel responsible for. And so we check them out.

MARTIN: Peter Sokolowski. He is a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster. Peter, thanks so much for talking with us.

SOKOLOWSKI: It's a treat. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.