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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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June 8, 2010, 1:37 p.m.

Don’t get apoplectic: The NYT’s most looked-up words skew more than a little dark and depressing

A year ago, we ran a post on the 50 words that New York Times users looked up the most often, using the dictionary tool on NYTimes.com. We ran the post because we thought it was an interesting window into the kind of ambient data that news organizations can assemble from their users’ behavior — data that can then be put to use in better tailoring the product to users’ needs.

Aw, who am I kidding? We ran the post because we’re a bunch of word nerds and we thought it was really neat. It’s since become the most popular post in the history of our little website.

The Times is out with the 2010 version of that list. Phil Corbett, associate managing editor for standards has written up a blog post detailing the findings, and there’s a PDF of the words. I’ve taken those words and moved them from the PDF to the spreadsheet you see above (also available here).

Corbett has some nice observations about specific words — me, my mind went to “sinecure” when it saw “cynosure” — but what struck me was how comparatively dark this year’s list is. (“Black, bleak, blue, cheerless, desolate, dismal, dreary, gloomy, glum, joyless, somber, tenebrific. See happy/unhappy, light/darkness.”) This isn’t the blissful side of SAT vocab practice.

New words appearing on this year’s list for the first time include austerity (“The quality of being severe or stern in disposition or appearance; somber and grave”), overhaul (“To examine or go over carefully for needed repairs”), opprobrium (“Disgrace arising from exceedingly shameful conduct; ignominy”), obduracy (“The state or quality of being intractable or hardened”), desultory (“Having no set plan; haphazard or random”), and Manichean (“A believer in Manichaeism, a dualistic philosophy dividing the world between good and evil principles or regarding matter as intrinsically evil and mind as intrinsically good”), apostates (“One who has abandoned one’s religious faith, a political party, one’s principles, or a cause”).

Not the words of a happy time. And moving way up in the rankings this year were both profligacy (“The quality of state of being recklessly wasteful, wildly extravagant”) and profligate, plus inchoate (“Imperfectly formed or developed”), apostates (“One who has abandoned one’s religious faith, a political party, one’s principles, or a cause”) and omertĂ  (“A rule or code that prohibits speaking or divulging information about certain activities, especially the activities of a criminal organization”)

On the flip side, Times readers have apparently become much more comfortable with solipsism in the past year (“The theory that the self is the only thing that can be known and verified”), which dropped off in lookups. Not to mention laconic (“Using or marked by the use of few words; terse or concise,” ironically enough), saturnine (“Melancholy or sullen; having or marked by a tendency to be bitter or sardonic”), and epistemological (“Relating to the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity”).

In any event, go check out Corbett’s piece and the list. Last year’s list of most looked-up words is below; note that this year, the numbers separate out word mentions in the news vs. op-ed pages of the Times. And note that the Times’ blogs, among other parts of the site, aren’t counted in these data.

POSTED     June 8, 2010, 1:37 p.m.
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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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