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Merriam-Webster names "pragmatic" word of 2011

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

So they chose ... 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 this fall.

"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 that 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).

2010 Word of the Year: "Austerity" beats "socialism"
2009 Word of the Year: "Admonish"
Merriam-Webster's 2008 Word of the Year

(Scroll down for a complete list)

"Austerity" also made the top 10 list in 2011 along with ambivalence, insidious, didactic, diversity, capitalism, socialism, vitriol and "apres 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.

Morse and Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster's editor at large, said they would not have been surprised if some people had expected "occupy" to be the 2011 Word of the Year because of the interest raised by Occupy Wall Street protests and similar encampments.

Though it was used a lot in conversation, "occupy" did not prompt an unusual number of searches.

"It's like the dog that doesn't bark. 'Occupy' or 'recession' or 'entitlement' are words you see pop up occasionally in the daily log of lookups, but not in the yearly log," Sokolowski said.

"Occupy" still has a chance to grab a spot in the linguistic limelight, though, because it's being considered among the front-runners for the American Dialect Society's 2011 Word of the Year.

That group's annual choice isn't driven by dictionary lookups, but is a word or phrase that members consider widely used, demonstrably new or popular and reflects the year's popular discourse — similar, in a sense, to Time's selection of Person of the Year. The magazine chose "the protester" as its person of the year for 2011.

The American Dialect Society will announce its selection Jan. 6 after a vote at its annual convention in Portland, Ore., and the group's executive secretary, Allan Metcalf, says "occupy" is getting a lot of buzz.

But so is "Tebow time," a concept that alludes to Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow's ability to rally late-game comebacks — and, in a broader sense, applied to any success or comeback at crunch time.

"Maybe 'Tebow time' might win the Word of the Year in the crunch, but we have two weeks left to go, so who knows what other words might pop up," said Metcalf, who is also an English professor at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill., and author of "OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word."

Another outlet, the London-based Oxford English Dictionary, also named its 2011 word choice in November: "squeezed middle," a primarily term credited to British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband to describe the financial pinch felt by the middle class in Great Britain.

Merriam-Webster's past Words of the Year

  • 2011: Pragmatic — "relating to matters of fact or practical affairs often to the exclusion of intellectual or artistic matters: practical as opposed to idealistic."
    Frequently looked up before 2011 Congressional debate on U.S. debt ceiling, and again as Congressional "supercommittee" considered deficit-cutting measures.
  • 2010: Austerity — "enforced or extreme economy."
    Extensively looked up after Greece imposed a series of strict austerity measures, including cutting public sector salaries and increasing taxes, to fight a debt crisis that eventually spread to other European countries.
  • 2009: Admonish — "to express warning or disapproval to especially in a gentle, earnest, or solicitous manner."
    Extensively looked up after Rep. Joseph Wilson, R-S.C., was admonished for shouting "you lie" at President Barack Obama during a speech to Congress.
  • 2008: Bailout — "a rescue from financial distress."
    Selected by huge volume of lookups as Congress was considering $700 million bailout package for financial industry.
  • 2007: W00t — "expression of joy or triumph, or an obvious victory; abbreviation of `We Owned the Other Team,' originating from computer-gaming subculture."
    Selected as representative of new words, often whimsical and clever, emerging from new technology.
  • 2006: Truthiness — "truth that comes from the gut, not books." Popularized by Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert; selected as Word of the Year by Merriam-Webster's online users.
    Picked as national political debates questioned what constitutes "truth," and whether it is subjective. Deemed by Merriam-Webster as a playful term for an important issue.
  • 2005: Integrity — "firm adherence to a code; incorruptibility."
    Picked as national political discourse centered on integrity, and lack thereof, in public servants on national and local levels.
  • 2004: Blog — "a website that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer. Short for Weblog."
    Selected as it rocketed to prominence in midyear, driven by growth and popularity of blogs.
  • 2003: Democracy — "government by the people, especially: rule of the majority, or: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections."
    Selected as one of the most frequently looked-up words each year, especially in a campaign season preceding noteworthy elections.
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