Dictionary.com’s most searched words amid Kavanaugh hearings

As we have written, “Dictionaries are our wizards, places we run to when we encounter scary or unfamiliar words or terms.” The events of the past week, rooted largely in accusations of sex and drinking, spurred a lot of discussion of what certain terms mean, and led to a new entry in at least one dictionary. (An early warning: Some links in this column contain, as they say, material that might be considered inappropriate for certain audiences.)

Some dictionaries try to gauge what people are interested in, through traffic metrics or blog postings. Looking at them can be an eye-opener, not just for the words people are looking up, but also at what the dictionaries themselves are highlighting.

Take Dictionary.com, for a chaste example. The top trending word on dictionary.com’s blog for one of the most tumultuous weeks we’ve seen recently is… “dunking.” It’s true that “dunking” can be slang for any manner of sex acts, but the reason for dictionary.com’s attention was Dunkin’ Donuts, which announced it was changing its name to “Dunkin’,” to emphasize its coffee. You might be forgiven if you missed that news amid everything else.

RELATED: Did you notice news outlets publishing similar images of Kavanaugh during his hearing? There’s a reason why.

After “dunking,” dictionary.com listed “marauder,” because lookups spiked 78 percent after the rock group Interpol released an album by that name. Sex was high on dictionary.com’s list, but not in the context you might expect: Last week included “Bi Visibility Day,” which “celebrates bisexuality” on September 23 every year. Lookups of “pansexual” spiked nearly 400 percent on dictionary.com helped by Janelle Monae’s telling Rolling Stone she identified with pansexuality.

“Inebriated,” “illicit,” “con job,” and “sequelae” also spiked last week, bringing dictionary.com closer to the news, at least as journalists view it. “Sequelae,” the plural of “sequela,” “an abnormal condition resulting from a previous disease,” was used by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in her testimony.

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By now, you may have a better idea of what dictionary.com’s audience is: Given its domain, it is often the starting place for schoolchildren, their teachers, and anyone who’s just looking for “a dictionary.” (Dictionary.com uses The Random House Unabridged Dictionary as its main source.)

Over at Merriam-Webster, which also tracks words in the news based on lookups, “sequela” was on the trending list, but there was no other overlap with dictionary.com. Instead, the top of M-W’s list was “quorum,” whose lookups spiked 6,300 percent during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s meeting on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. (Bet you were wondering when that name would surface.)

And yes, the post discussed the meaning of the word “boof,” through its official dictionary definition (“the sound made by a dog : BARK”) and its various slang uses, concluding with the genteel conclusion that “contemporary citational evidence is still being gathered” about “boof.” As for “Devil’s Triangle,” M-W says: “we also have not as yet defined any sense.”

Other words on M-W’s list were “corroborate,” also from the Kavanaugh hearings; “Spartan,” a holdover from coverage of Hurricane Florence; and “hirsute,” held over even longer from the death of Burt Reynolds. Apparently, it takes more to stay atop the top 10 list at M-W.

To get really down and dirty, one may turn to the part we warned you about: Urban Dictionary. This is an open-source dictionary, “written by you,” as its home page says, and we will replicate the spelling and punctuation of the entries. Most people contributing seem to have the sense of humor or intellectual capacity of a hormonal teenager. New terms are dated, so it’s easy to see what might be triggered by the news, or revived. Among the words on Urban Dictionary’s “trending” list is one first entered on September 27: “kavanaughed,” defined as “to get blackout drunk and show your genitals to the entire party or an individual.”

But Urban Dictionary allows multiple definitions of words, which visitors can vote up or down. So to counter that definition of “kavanaughed” is a definition added on September 28, “when you are just about to get a high, prominent position and someone comes out with false, unsubstantiated claims of sexual assault.” Two more were added on September 29: “To make allegations without proof and ruin some reputation or career. To have one’s character assassinated based on an unproven accusation. Usually to a man. Sexual related”; and “to be ambushed, lied about, and to have your name defamed.”

Other recent Urban Dictionary lookups related to the news were added long before: “Beach Week” was first entered in 2008, and is defined as “Week long fiesta taking place on, near, or around a beach. More of an east-coast tradition in which freshly graduated seniors travel to the beach to get belligerently hammered, hook up with chicks, and sun bathe.” (That’s the most presentable definition.)

But the other 18 of the 20 “trending” words seem unrelated to the news, at first glance. Among the few whose definitions don’t contain profanity, vulgarity, or obscenity are “haruhism,” defined as “The ‘religion’ of people who are fan of the popular anime series ‘The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya,’” and “turnative,” defined as “A post-indie genre of music. Characterized by authentic 2k9-2k10 post-blog-house bands.”

As for the nearly all the other “trending” words on urbandictionary.com, well, let’s just say that many of those terms or definitions could have come from a high school yearbook.

RELATED: The media bullying of Christine Blasey Ford

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.