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Socialism, capitalism, malarkey! Merriam-Webster's top 10 most looked-up words of 2012

Allison TerryThe Christian Science Monitor

Political lexicon inundated more than just TV commercials and newspaper columns this election season. It also drove Americans to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, helping them make sense of the vitriol.

On Wednesday, the dictionary publisher shared its Top 10 words, based on the volume of user lookups at Merriam-Webster.com. Political words dominated the list. Sharing the No. 1 spot: socialism and capitalism.

"They're words that sort of encapsulate the zeitgeist. They're words that are in the national conversation," Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor at large, told the Associated Press. "The thing about an election year is it generates a huge amount of very specific interest."

Socialism – “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods” – drew its largest lookup spikes during health-care reform coverage as well as during the political conventions and presidential debates.

Capitalism – “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market” – followed similar traffic trends but was looked up slightly less often.

"With socialism and capitalism, it's clear that many people turned to the dictionary to help make sense of the commentary that often surrounds these words,” said John Morse, president and publisher at Merriam-Webster, in a press release.

Making sense of the commentary meant understanding the negative connotations attached to both words, which was often injected into political debates and campaign ads.

Conservatives called President Obama a socialist, attacking wealth redistribution policies such as health-care reform, tax increases for the wealthy, and entitlement programs such as food stamps. Liberals hit back at Mitt Romney for his experience at his venture capital firm, Bain Capital, which they accused of killing jobs in the US. Even Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a fellow Republican, called Mr. Romney a “vulture capitalist” during the primary.

Beyond socialism and capitalism, the list included other political words: Democracy ranked No. 5, globalization No. 7, as well as bigot (No. 3) and marriage (No. 4), which were driven by the same-sex marriage debate.

Words indirectly related to politics represent lighter side of election season.

During the vice presidential debate, Joe Biden said to Paul Ryan: “With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey.”

Defined as “insincere or foolish talk” – malarkey was a “one-week wonder” word, said Sokolowski. The No. 8-ranked word had the largest spike of lookups in a 24-hour period: 3,000 percent.

This year’s presidential debates inspired three viral memes: Romney “firing” Big Bird, his “binders full of women,” and Obama’s military analogy to horses and bayonets. Meme – “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture” – was coined in 1976 by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and ranked No. 10.

“With Facebook, Twitter and other social media, online response to news events has become simultaneous commentary – and parody,” Sokolowski said in the press release. “The word meme now sometimes serves as the noun form of the adjective viral.”

Liberals' post-election analysis often included the No. 9 word, schadenfreude – a German word meaning “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.”

Rounding out the list: No. 2 touché – “used to acknowledge a hit in fencing or the success or appropriateness of an argument, an accusation, or a witty point” – and No. 6 professionalism – “the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person.”