The Words That Make Us Tick: What Users Are Looking Up On Dictionary.com Every Day

You may have noticed a nifty new tool scrolling across the top of the homepage of Dictionary.com. But, what makes it tick?

What is the trending word ticker, and how does it work?

Rather than reading out stock prices, our ticker pulls real-time data on daily word search trends in our dictionary. The percentage is a measurement of how many searches there are for a given word compared to the previous day, and the line graph displays the change in those searches over that time period.

Intrigued?

What’s more, placing your cursor over the word will pause it, as will hitting, well, the pause button. 

We were even more curious, though, about what we might glean from these trending words. What might the information tell us about how people use Dictionary.com? Is there something happening that’s driving people to look up a certain word?

So, we dove deep into the data since the ticker’s launch on June 10–11, and here are some themes we found. And because we love words, we’ll continue to look at the trends each week.

Words in the news

When the news breaks, people head … to the dictionary. At least when an unusual or otherwise compelling word is buzzing. On June 18, unsalvageable (“not able to be saved”) spiked nearly 11,000%, presumably after the fraught relationship between Houston Rockets basketball stars James Harden and Chris Paul was reported as “unsalvageable.”

That same day, New York Congresswoman Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez was in the spotlight after she said on social media: “The US is running concentration camps on our southern border,” referring to the detention centers for undocumented immigrants there. This controversial characterization sent searches for concentration camp up over 11,000%.

Breatharian got some fresh air (3,200% worth) on June 25. This coincided with news of a 25-year-old self-styled breatharian, who claims she gets her energy from air … and the smoothies and tea she drinks. A breatharian believes it is possible to subsist healthily on air alone. (Nutritionists heartily disagree.)

The first debate for the Democratic candidates for president in 2020 kicked off in Miami, Florida on June 26. MSNBC anchor Brian Williams took to a less familiar Latin plural of podium, podia, ahead of the debate, which had to accommodate ten such “lecterns” for the candidates. Searches for podia soared up over 19,300%, our ticker found—which some pundits may joke is the number of Democrats running for office.

Word families?

On its opening days of June 10–11, ISP, www, netiquette, and modem all trended up an average of 13,700%, the ticker showed. These words—including a now more dated-sounding netiquette, or “internet etiquette”—form a natural group, all related to internet vocabulary.

Another natural group that emerges from the data are music terms. On June 12, vibraphone jumped 15,200%. On June 14, kalimba, an mbira or “thumb piano,” leapt 19,100%. The name of a third type of idiophone, marimba, went up a more modest but still considerable 7,600% on June 26. June 26 saw rigadoon, a kind of “lively dance or piece of music,” rocket up 20,400%. 

And, the surname of French composer and Chopin confidant Joseph Canteloube trended across three days, June 13, 20, and 23, showing a growth in searches topping 29,000% on the middle date. Unless a lot of people collectively misspelled cantaloupe, we aren’t too sure about this one …

Another theme in our ticker stats so far are technical and scientific terms. For instance, on June 22, saprophytically surged 32,700%. It’s the adverb form of the adjective form of (yes, we’re getting there) saprophyte, “any organism that lives on dead organic matter, as certain fungi and bacteria.” It was not to be bested by quadrillion, which bounded up in searches 46,000% that day.

Still, that quadrillion figure has nothing on anticholinergic, “relating to a substance that opposes the effects of acetylcholine.” We will let you go down that chemical (and lexical) rabbit hole, but on June 24, search interest in that term peaked at 57,300% higher.

Wordplay …

The trending words in the previous section suggest people are coming to Dictionary.com as a daily resource and reference for the various research tasks in their work or school. Perhaps that’s not surprising, but it makes us feel pretty good.

But, as they say, all work and no play …

Fun and curiosity may also be major drivers, our ticker data shows. Consider June 19, when cathy climbed up 58,900% (our highest trend!). Are people interested in the given name Cathy? Perhaps. But searches for tachy (up nearly 12,000%) and chaty (over 9,200%) suggest people were anagram-hunting while playing word games like the Jumble.

Other searches seem to be driven by our Word of the Day. June 17’s Word of the Day was caterpillar in its sense of “a person who preys on others; extortioner.” Both preys (on) and extortioner experienced significant spikes, the latter reaching a percent increase of 19,000%.

… and word power

Whatever the impetus, our users are coming to Dictionary.com to look up some truly lookup-able words. Here are some of the pearlescent (June 18, up 2500%) lexical lookups we’ve seen since debuting our ticker:

  • aggiornamento (June 25, up 3,000%; “the act of bringing something up to date to meet current needs”)
  • earthshine (June 12, up 50,800%; “the faint illumination of the part of the moon not illuminated by sunlight”)
  • hyalophagia (June 17, 9,700%; “the eating or chewing of glass”)
  • philoprogenitiveness (June 14, up 15,500%; “producing offspring; prolific”)
  • polysyndeton (June 26, up 7,700%; “the use of a number of conjunctions in close succession”)

And oh, boobhead, which was buoyed 13,000% on June 21. We see you …

And, that’s what our ticker is all about.