Merriam-Webster Announces 2003 Words of the Year

Posted on January 23, 2004

Merriam-Webster Inc., a language reference publisher, has announced the year's top ten words and definitions as culled from its Merriam-Webster OnLine website. The 2003 Merriam-Webster's Words of the Year list is based on users' anonymous hits to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and Online Thesaurus as well as lookups on Merriam-Webster, a premium website launched last July.

The number one word of the year, which received by a wide margin the most unexpectedly large number of user-requests, is "democracy," for which a ten-line Collegiate Dictionary definition begins: "government by the people; esp: rule of the majority." Nine more words complete the list, all of which correlate to breaking news stories and world events ranging from the war in Iraq and the SARS epidemic ("quarantine," #3) to Hurricane Isabel and even a popular Hollywood movie ("matrix," #4).

"To the surprise of some," said John M. Morse, president and publisher of Merriam-Webster, "the most frequently looked up words are not the newest words, not the latest high-tech terms, not the cool new slang. Instead, the users are most interested in exploring full definitions for words cropping up in current media headlines or in other kinds of daily reading and conversation-not so much new words as newly popular words."

Merriam-Webster's 2003 Words of the Year

  1. democracy
  2. quagmire
  3. quarantine
  4. matrix
  5. marriage
  6. slog
  7. gubernatorial
  8. plagiarism
  9. outage
  10. batten
"By tracking the words people are looking up on Merriam-Webster OnLine, and by paying careful attention to the thousands of emails we receive each year from visitors to our sites," said Morse, "we are developing a better idea of what people want from reference sources. Online customer response can help lead our editorial staff to make adjustments in revisions of print dictionaries."

Merriam-Webster Inc. acquired the rights to revise and publish Noah Webster's dictionaries in 1843. Today, the company publises reference products, learning tools, and word games. Traffic to Merriam-Webster OnLine now exceeds 100 million individual page views per month. On average, the company responds to approximately ten lookup requests in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary or Thesaurus per second. During peak hours, this may increase to more than 100 requests per second.

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