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March 2011

February Top Twenty

The usual mix of old friends on the list, seasonal curiosity, and news-driven vocabulary gives us the top twenty most looked-up words for February. Pragmatic is no stranger to the list, but the word increasingly seems like a level-headed admonishment amidst political debates about budgets at every level of government these days. There are, big surprise, other references to politics and controversy this month as well.

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And, of course, love makes its annual appearance during the month of Valentine's Day.

From the Mail Server

This month, correspondents had very specific questions about the development and usage of words: What's the difference between forever and for ever? Why is kickoff a noun but not an adjective? Why can exceptional mean "different" instead of "excellent"? Excellent questions, all.

Notable and Quotable: Mickey Spillane

Mickey Spillane, writer of hardboiled detective fiction, was born March 9, 1918. Critics didn't always admire him, but readers loved him: Spillane sold 200 million books, many featuring tough guy private eye Mike Hammer, who loved, killed, and dispensed justice according to his own rules. Spillane's writing style was vivid and lively; of the 11 Mickey Spillane quotations illustrating words in context in the Unabridged, seven words were verbs and three were slang nouns.

Word History of the Month: quorum

Lookups of quorum soared in the Online Dictionary after Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin left the state in an attempt to prevent the legislature from voting on the controversial collective bargaining bill. The lawmakers' flight to Illinois kept the legislature from reaching a quorum.

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The word quorum comes, appropriately enough, from the language of law. In Middle English, quorum was used to refer to a select group of justices of the peace who were required to be present at a session in order to constitute a lawful deciding body.

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Report from the Open Dictionary

Recent technology inspires coinages – recent weather patterns and business practices that reflect the current economy do also. But sometimes fans of older music (think of The Monkees' hit version of Neil Diamond's I'm a Believer) also deserve some credit for influencing terms born in popular culture.

If you've noticed a new word or a new sense of a word and would like to add it to the Open Dictionary, check out the guidelines for entries.

Entries submitted to the Open Dictionary in February include:

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emachine t4510 bios upgrade Belieber (noun) : a devoted fan of pop singer Justin Bieber

followee (noun) : a person one chooses to follow in an online social network such as Twitter

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dimensio snowmageddon (noun) : a large snowstorm

Words in the News

The Supreme Court of the United States followed precedent when that judicial body again turned to Webster's Third New International (the Unabridged) to parse the term personal as part of the FCC v AT&T decision.

The March 1 decision included a refutation of what the Third Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals had dubbed "the grammatical imperative" that "a statute which defines a noun has thereby defined the adjectival form of that noun."

Just Foolin' Around

Disposition began attracting lookups more than a year ago, even before the American version of the song "Sweet Disposition" by the Australian group The Temper Trap hit the airwaves. Disposition places on the Top 100 occasionally; after a remix of the song was nominated for a Grammy this year (and the original was featured in an Oscar night television commercial), disposition rose to the #4 spot for February's list.

Perhaps music lovers puzzle over the word's meaning because disposition appears only in the song's title, not its lyrics. Still, the notion of a "sweet disposition" ("characteristic mood or attitude") permeates the upbeat tune.

In Case You Were Wondering

The normally mild-mannered word bureaucracy rose to #18 on February's Top Twenty list. Why? Probably because of the many debates about budgets and cutbacks now underway at every level of government, business, and organization. Bureaucracy can have a perfectly neutral connotation – simply referring to a group of officials or administrators – but it often carries a negative context in these troubled times.

Both ancient Rome and imperial China were home to functioning bureaucracies centuries before the word bureaucracy appeared in English in the early 19th century. Bureaucracy entered English from French, where bureaucratie (from bureau meaning "office" plus -cratie meaning "rule of") has meant "rule of office" since shortly before the French Revolution.


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