Merriam-Webster picks ‘pragmatic’ as Word of Year

When the time came for Merriam-Webster to pick its top word of 2011, its editors decided they needed to be pragmatic.

The word, an adjective that means practical and logical, was looked up so often on Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary that the publisher says “pragmatic” was the pragmatic choice for its 2011 Word of the Year.

Though it wasn’t traced to a specific news event or quote from a famous person, searches for “pragmatic” jumped in the weeks before Congress voted in August to increase the nation’s debt ceiling, and again as its supercommittee tried to craft deficit-cutting measures.

“Pragmatic” may have sparked dictionary users’ interest both because they’d heard it in conversations, and because it captures the current American mood of encouraging practicality over frivolity, said John Morse, president and publisher of Springfield, Mass.-based Merriam-Webster.

“‘Pragmatic’ is a word that describes a kind of quality that people value in themselves but also look for in others, and look for in policymakers and the activities of people around them,” Morse said.

A new feature on Merriam-Webster’s site allows users to tell the dictionary publisher why they sought that specific word, and the feedback from those who looked up “pragmatic” was that they wanted to reaffirm the connotation was positive.

“People have a general sense of what the word meant and in fact had even been using it, but then they had a moment when they thought to themselves, ‘Perhaps I ought to look up that word and make sure it means what I think it means,’” Morse said.

Merriam-Webster has been picking its annual top choice since 2003. Previous winners include: austerity (2010), admonish (2009) and bailout (2008).

“Austerity” also made the top 10 list in 2011 along with ambivalence, insidious, didactic, diversity, capitalism, socialism, vitriol and “aprhs moi le deluge.”

That quote, attributed to King Louis XV of France, translates to, “After me, the flood,” and was used by columnist David Gergen in a piece about the Congressional supercommittee’s failure to reach a deficit-cutting deal.

Merriam-Webster says it’s generally used to allude to people who behave as if they don’t care about the future, since “the flood” will happen after they’re gone.

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