Goodbye, 2019. Hello, 2020! Well, not just yet.
As we look ahead to what the new year will bring, we also reflect back on the previous one—and at Dictionary.com, that means analyzing the top words that sent users to our site in 2019.
We dived into our data and identified the five words that trended the most each month. And how did we measure those trends? Well, over a 15-month period we looked at peaks for each term vs. their average search volume. The highest peaks each month made the list.
And the results? A snapshot of the news and events, the politics and pop culture, the routines and surprises, of 2019—all in words. Some of the leading lookups will make you say “Of course!” Others might make you go “Oh yeah, I remember that now!” Yet others could leave you scratching your head: “Huh, 2019?” Let’s get started.
parabellum | ultima Thule/Thule | furlough | bandersnatch
In January 2019, the trailer for the Keanu Reeves-led action flick John Wick: Chapter 3–Parabellum dropped. The trailer generated buzz—and the film’s name, curiosity.
Searches for parabellum were up 12 times higher than their average search amount for that month. Ever proving himself a man of many talents, Reeves explained that parabellum is taken from the Latin saying si vis pacem, para bellum, “if you want peace, prepare for war.” (Parabellum is also the name of a type of gun.)
Speaking of Latin expressions, other top trends in January included ultima Thule and Thule (10 times higher amount of searches than average) after NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft zoomed past the most distant object ever explored. Ultima Thule has the sense of “the highest point attainable” in Latin, and served as the name of this four-billion-miles-from-Earth object until it was officially designated Arrokoth.
A historic partial US government shutdown this month had people unfurling the word furlough (seven times higher than average), meaning “a temporary layoff from work” in this context.
And to round out January Netflix’s choose-your-own-adventure sci-fi film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch taught many that the Lewis Caroll-coined bandersnatch (six times higher than average) means “an imaginary wild animal of fierce disposition” and “a person of uncouth or unconventional habits, attitudes.”
ruthful | vulva | gnosis | earthshine | chin-chin
Social media helped set the trends for February 2019. That month, singer Kacey Musgraves pondered life’s big lexicographical questions, wondering on Twitter if ruthless (“without pity or compassion”) had an opposite. It does, as we pointed out: the rare ruthful, “compassionate or sorrowful.”
Now, ruth is an old noun that means “pity, compassion; sorrow, grief; self-reproach, remorse,” and Musgraves’s musings rightly remind us that ruth mainly lives on in ruthless. However, searches for ruthful soared 23 times their average after this.
We’ll be ruthful and help you out here. https://t.co/qsVLzLEb2Z
— Dictionary.com (@Dictionarycom) February 20, 2019
Another viral exchange increased the monthly trend for the word vulva, “the external female genitalia,” up six times higher than its average after a tweeter attempted to correct—ahem, mansplain—a Guardian article on its use of the word vagina.
Accepting her Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Regina King sent people searching for gnosis, which trended five times higher than normal. According to the official transcript, King said “G’moses,” which is perhaps a minced oath for Good Moses. The mishearing nevertheless taught a great many people that gnosis means “knowledge of spiritual matters.”
We couldn’t precisely connect February’s other big trends to specific stories, but they are still great words worth highlighting. Earthshine trended nine times higher than average, and it refers to “the faint illumination of the part of the moon not illuminated by sunlight, as during a crescent phase, caused by the reflection of light from the earth.” Chin-chin trended up six times the average, and you likely encounter it as a toast, like “cheers.”
gesticulate | exoneration | leprechaun | momo | duodecimal
March’s top terms were a hodgepodge, topic-wise. A video we made on why some people gesticulate—“make or use gestures,” especially in an excited manner—had people gesticulating on their keyboards, apparently. (That sounded dirtier than we thought it would.) That term trended six times higher than average.
Next up was exoneration, “the act or state of being cleared of an accusation.” President Donald Trump tweeted, untruly, that the Mueller Report was a “Complete and Total EXONERATION” of obstructing justice. Exoneration trended six times higher than average, and search volume for its verb form exonerate also surged 5,182%, another measure of the trend, in late March.
In time for St. Patrick’s Day, searches for leprechaun were up four times higher than average. Simple as that.
And remember that viral hoax—the so-called Momo Challenge that centered on a grotesque, violence-inducing character? Well it pushed searches for momo four times higher than average. (We define a very different momo, “a steamed or fried dumpling, typical of South Asian cuisine.”)
Duodecimal, a Latin-based word principally meaning “pertaining to twelfths or to the number 12,” also trended up four times higher after we suggested it as an alternative to the beloved tweeter @darth, who joked about the oddness of the word twelfth. (We think both are perfectly lovely words.)
Perhaps why duodecimal exists? https://t.co/aBQr3RqFuN
— Dictionary.com (@Dictionarycom) March 15, 2019
April fool | maundy | spying | paradoxology | Notre Dame
Like leprechaun, two of April’s top trends were seasonal in nature, reminding us of how central special words are to our cultural calendars.
April Fool’s Day sent April fool up 14 times higher than average while maundy, connected to Maundy Thursday, trended 21 times higher than average. A term especially common in England, Maundy Thursday is the Thursday before Easter. In the Christian faith, Maundy Thursday commemorates when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, issuing a new commandment (in Latin, mandatum, source of maundy) to love one another as he loved them. The ceremony of washing the feet of the poor is itself called maundy.
Interest in the definition of spying was high—16 times higher than average, in fact—after Attorney General William Barr said he thought improper spying occurred on the 2016 Trump campaign.
In April, a popular Christian music band released an album called Paradoxology. According to the Christian music site The Christian Beat, “Paradoxology revolves around the paradox of a perfect God receiving our imperfect praise.” A paradox is something that appears self-contradictory but nonetheless expresses a possible truth. A hymn of praise is called a doxology, hence Paradoxology )searches for which rose 11 times higher than average). (Paradoxology can more generally mean “habitually using paradoxes.”)
Finally, the tragic fire that claimed the spire and much of the roof of the famed Notre Dame cathedral in Paris sent gutted users all over the globe searching Notre Dame on Dictionary.com (10 times more than average).
odylic | psalm | snit | Chernobyl | Cinco de Mayo
Rohan Raja correctly spelled odylic to force an eight-way tie at the 2019 Scripps National Spelling at the end of May. Could you spell it, let alone define it? It’s the adjective form of odyl, a variant of a German coinage, od: “a hypothetical force formerly held to pervade all nature and to manifest itself in magnetism, mesmerism, chemical action, etc.” Odylic surged 17 times its monthly average—a whopping 290,150% increase, if compared to search volume the week prior.
Kanye West and Kim Kardashian named their fourth child, Psalm, born in May. The name Psalm calls up the Book of Psalms in the Bible, with a psalm being a “sacred song or hymn.” (Not to be confused with a doxology, ahem ⤴️.) Searches for psalm soared 12 times compared to their monthly average in our data window.
And …. back to Bill Barr. His snubbing of Special Investigator Robert Mueller as snitty made its noun form snit, “an agitated or irritated state,” trend up six times its average.
The acclaimed HBO drama Chernobyl increased searches for that Ukrainian site of a 1986 gruesome nuclear disaster five times its average.
The fittingly fifth top search in May was Cinco de Mayo (also fittingly five times higher than average), a Mexican and Mexican-American holiday marking the victory of Mexican troops over French forces in Puebla, Mexico, on May 5, 1862.
WATCH: Did You Know Mexican Independence Day Is Not Cinco De Mayo?
unsalvageable | busing | obliteration | concentration camp | karat
Unsalvageable led the pack for June. This word, meaning “unable to be salvaged” (that is, “saved”), trended seven times higher than average. It was used to describe the fraught relationship between Houston Rocket players Chris Paul and James Harden.
Busing also trended seven times higher than average. During the first Democratic debates, California Senator Kamala Harris challenged former Vice President Joe Biden on his opposition to desegregation busing in the 1970s. Busing, here, specifically refers to “transporting students by bus to schools outside their neighborhoods, especially as a means of achieving socioeconomic or racial diversity among students in a public school.”
Political tweets drove up searches for two other terms this month. Obliteration, “the state of being obliterated,” or “utterly destroyed,” jumped five times its average. After Iran downed a US drone, President Trump tweeted that any Iranian attacks would be met with “overwhelming force” and “obliteration.”
Earlier that month, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez characterized the migrant detention centers on the US southern border as concentration camps. The phrase (which trended three times higher than average) ignited outrage, as many felt she disparaged the Holocaust Nazi concentration camps of World War II.
Karat is a “a unit for measuring the fineness of gold, pure gold being 24 karats fine,” as in the 24-Karat Gold Leaf Steak Burger, which bedazzled the Hard Rock Cafe’s new menu in June. Searches for karat—definitely not to be confused, in this context, for carrot—shined four times their average.
burger | biopic | exculpate | wedded | upped
The language of food served up another trend in July. Burger trended three times higher than average. In response to a tweet from from Vox about possible confusion over the term veggie burger amid a larger trend of meatless munchies, we pointed out that burger is, yes, short for hamburger, but also “a food patty, or patty on a bun, containing ingredients other than beef.”
— Dictionary.com (@Dictionarycom) July 5, 2019
Our social-media team got people a-searching again with biopic (four times higher than average), “a biographical movie or TV show.” But how do you pronounce it, with the stress on the first or second syllable?
NPR’s Sam Sanders wondered the same, and we pointed users to our pronunciation: [ bahy-oh-pik ]. What we can we say? We like to be helpful.
We are OH so glad you asked. https://t.co/ExczdH6WUk
— Dictionary.com (@Dictionarycom) July 10, 2019
Discussion around Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election continued to propel many of our top searches. Testifying before Congress about his findings in July, Mueller stated his report did not exculpate President Trump, or “clear” Trump “from a charge of guilt from blame.” Exculpate trended seven times higher than average—the leading trend for the month.
Wedded trended three times its average—and maybe not due to wedding season. Georgia Republican Doug Collins said in July that Democrats were “ wedded” to impeaching President Trump. Wedded, here, is metaphorical, meaning “attached or dedicated, especially obstinately or unshakably.”
And rounding out July’s top five was upped (five times higher than average), or “made larger,” for reasons unclear to us.
prime meridian | stochastic terrorism | compass rose | cherry-pick | polemicist
Prime meridian trended 12 times higher than average, and as we just saw with upped, we aren’t sure why. Prime meridian refers to “the meridian (a circle of the earth passing through the poles and any given point on the earth’s surface) running through Greenwich, England, from which longitude east and west is reckoned.”
We are all too clear, alas, on why stochastic terrorism trended 10 times higher than average (including a 63,389% weekly increase) in August. Stochastic terrorism is “the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted.” Juliette Kayyem, who previously served in the Department of Homeland Security as Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs, notably used the term in the wake of the massacre of Latinx people in El Paso, Texas, describing the rhetoric of President Trump as stochastic terrorism.
Rounding out August’s top five trends were:
- compass rose: “a numbered circle printed on a chart or the like and used as a means of determining the course of a vessel or aircraft”
- cherry-pick: “to select with great care,” often out of expedience
- polemicist: “a person who is engaged or versed in polemics,” that is, “the art or practice of disputation or controversy” (former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis used the term in a Wall Street Journal op-ed appearing to criticize President Trump)
- All of these were 10 times higher than their average.
turbo | Fertile Crescent | royal colony | claimed | counterpoint
Clapbacks made for supercharged searches in September.
On Twitter, Tesla’s Elon Musk ribbed Porsche for naming its new electric sports car Turbo. His issue? When it comes to cars, turbo (17 times higher than average) is short for turbocharger, a mechanism that increases power … in combustion, not electric, motors.
— Dictionary.com (@Dictionarycom) September 5, 2019
Back-to-school also, apparently, made for supercharged searches in September. Both Fertile Crescent and royal colony trended (seven and six times higher than average, respectively), perhaps due to opening units in history classes.
Claimed and counterpoint both trended six times higher than average, with searches possibly motivated by several prominent uses of the words on social media. Outside of music, counterpoint is popularly used a synonym for counterargument, “a contrasting, opposing, or refuting argument.”
Halloween | suavity | lynching | quid pro quo | kangaroo court
Heading October was Halloween; the holiday helped increase searches 19 times its average. Meanwhile, suavity, or being suave (“smoothly agreeable and polite”), trended up nine times, maybe due to its prominent appearance in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”—a classic short story often enjoyed around Halloween.
October’s remaining trending terms concerned one of the defining political moments of 2019: the impeachment of President Trump.
Amid the inquiry, Trump likened his impeachment to a lynching (18 times higher than average), for which he was criticized over racial insensitivity. And at the center of the impeachment discourse was whether Trump engaged in a quid pro quo (eight times higher), meaning “something that is given or taken in return for something else,” in dealing with the president of Ukraine. Trump, among others, also likened the Democrat-led hearings to a kangaroo court, also sending that term up eight times higher than average (meaning “an unfair court”).
xylyl | holiness | dropsonde | Thanksgiving | boomer
Topping November at 19 times its average was xylyl, a powerful Scrabble play and term used for “a xylene-derived chemical containing a particular group of atom.” The historical use of xylyl bromide as tear gas could have contributed to this search trend.
What occasioned holiness to trend 18 times higher than average isn’t exactly clear, though an answer may lie in the fact that searches for the term steadily climbed from November 1 (All Saints Day, a holy day of obligation in the Catholic Church) to Veterans Day on November 11. While holiness means “sanctity,” it is also used as a title for the Pope, among other spiritual leaders.
We’re also not sure what made dropsonde trend 11 times higher than average. A dropsonde is “an instrument similar to a radiosonde that is attached to a parachute and released from an aircraft”; it helps measure storm conditions.
We are certain why there was a feast of searches for Thanksgiving (17 times higher) in November, as well as why boomer boomed up 14 times. The phrase OK boomer—which we covered in our slang dictionary—went viral. It is used, often in a humorous or ironic manner, to call out or dismiss out-of-touch or close-minded opinions associated with the baby boomer generation and older people more generally.
Gloria in Excelsis Deo | Noel | poinsettia | Christmas | yuletide
Just as most of us only really listen to Christmas songs once a year, so we only use (or encounter) a host of words each Christmastime. So, it’s no surprise that all the top searches in December were Christmas-related:
- Gloria in Excelsis Deo (22 times higher than average): Latin for “glory in the highest to God,” used as the refrain to the Christmas carol “Angels Have We Heard on High”
- Noel (13 times higher): from the French term for the Christmas season
- poinsettia (12 times higher): a plant whose festive colors lend itself to Christmastime displays (and whose spelling and pronunciation can be tricky)
- Christmas (12 times higher): Because Christmas
- yuletide (11 times higher): another term for the Christmas season
What words will trend in 2020? If this retrospective is any measure, 2020 will bring a fascinating mix of the familiar—and plenty of lexical surprises. Happy New Year—and happy new searches on Dictionary.com.
And if you can’t get enough … find out what searches trended most in 2018!
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