Word-of-the-Year season continues this week with Merriam-Webster Dictionaries. To Oxford Dictionaries’ post-truth and Collins Dictionaries’ Brexit, Merriam-Webster this week added its choice for word of the year: surreal.
The editors at Merriam-Webster choose their word of the year by analyzing user lookups at Merriam-Webster.com, examining both total number of lookups — ignoring perennial favorites like love — and spikes in lookups for particular words. Surreal, which M-W defines as “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream,” saw three separate and relatively sustained spikes in the last year: after the Brussels terrorist attack in March, after the attempted coup in Turkey and terrorist attack in Nice in July, and after Election Day in the United States in November. (I imagine surreal is in the midst of another spike this week in light of the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey and the unbelievable and, well, surreal photos that came from it.)
But let’s set aside the political aspects of this term and just consider the word itself.
I doubt I am the only person who was surprised to learn that surreal is a back-formation from surrealism, which is attested a good decade earlier.
Many people associate the Surrealist movement primarily with Spanish artist Salvador Dali, but in fact, it was French poet André Breton who, in 1924, wrote and published “The Surrealist Manifesto.” In it, he defined Surrealism as “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought, dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”
I know: Thank goodness for the conciseness of modern lexicographers, right?
Surrealism was created by combining the prefix sur- “over, above” with realism; surrealism, then, is “above realism,” or “more than real.”
The adjective surrealistic followed quickly on the heels of surrealism. The shorter adjective surreal — divorced over time from the artistic movement that created it — wasn’t attested until 1937 and was first defined in a Merriam-Webster dictionary in 1967.
The Merriam-Webster editors also published a list of nine other notable lookups — WOTY runners-up, if you will:
- In Omnia Paratus
- Faute de Mieux