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Picking the Cambridge Dictionary word of 2017

Helen Freeman from Cambridge University Press, Shaftesbury Road, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Helen Freeman from Cambridge University Press, Shaftesbury Road, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

What is the word of the year – and how is it chosen?

If you are asked to play a game of Scrabble with Helen Freeman, then it is highly advisable to politely decline the opportunity or face a humiliating defeat.

That’s because when it comes to words contained in the dictionary, there are very few that Ms Freeman and her team at Cambridge University Press (CUP) don’t know about.

The world-renowned Cambridge Dictionary has just chosen its word of the year for 2017 – following on from austerity (2015) and paranoid (2016), populism is the latest winner of the accolade.

To most people, Ms Freeman’s job might seem to be, on the surface at least, a bit geeky, but Cambridge’s version of Countdown’s Susie Dent, is passionate about her work.

“It is really exciting and I love it,” she admitted. “I find it hard to switch off and even when I am reading I am jotting down words.

“I am constantly thinking about words. I love Susie Dent but I think I will leave Dictionary Corner to her.”

She continued: “I taught English as a foreign language then I saw this role as an editor and thought I’d love to do that, so it has been great for me. People get quite passionate about words and language.”

Choosing the word of the year is not a random process. Far from it. It involves analysing data and spikes in online word searches, usually caused by global events. In the case of populism, two mentions of the word by Pope Francis was enough to launch an almighty word search spike across the world.

Ms Freeman, commissioning editor for Cambridge Dictionary, added: “The great thing about being online is that we can see what words people have been looking up over the course of the year.

“We have lots of data we can look at and then analyse. We look at the most searched for words but sometimes that is not so interesting because they are often the same terms. Pronunciation comes up every year and sarcasm and even the word ‘words’.

“But the search spikes, where words are looked for many more times than usual, are much more interesting because you can link them to things going on in the world and what people who use our dictionary are thinking about.

“We can also determine how significant a spike is. Populism had a much higher look up pattern than usual and it kind of encapsulated what happened this year in terms of world events.

“We had lots of words that related to US and UK politics. After the General Election we had spikes which included the words ‘shambles’ and ‘untenable’. Those words were spiking because the government didn’t get the result it wanted and the words were being used in news articles.

“Populism was used by the Pope in two articles warning against the rising tide of populism. Once those articles were published that’s when we saw the spikes.

“We are a global site, it was great for us that this word seemed to have global significance. That’s why we chose it. We try to choose words that encapsulate the year. Populism was a good choice for that. It is not a random choice, there is a thought process behind it.”

Evidence from the Cambridge English Corpus – a 1.5 billion-word database of language used by the CUP – reveals that people tend to use the term populism when they think it’s a political ploy instead of genuine.

Adding new words to the Cambridge Dictionary is not an ad hoc affair. Each suggestion is meticulously researched before being added to the growing online database.

And while some people may still feel the need to pick a dictionary off the shelf and thumb through it to find a word, the future is well and truly online, as Ms Freeman points out.

She added: “We are constantly updating the dictionary and adding thousands of new words a year. Now we are online, we don’t have to worry about the space and size of the dictionary. With print we used to worry about trying to make it all fit and how small the font size should be. Now we don’t have to worry about that. We update it and add new words every month.

“Things are moving towards online dictionaries and we think that’s where the future is. We put our dictionary online in 1999, so we did it very early on.

“We have a very loyal user base. We are also moving towards being more participatory where users can give us feedback. It is challenging and very exciting.”

Still fancy challenging her to a game of Scrabble?

Read more:

10 new words in the Cambridge Dictionary

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