'Integrity' Most Looked-Up Word in Online Dictionary

Farai Chideya talks with John Morse, president and publisher of Merriam-Webster, about the top 10 words users looked up on the company's online dictionary this year. They included "integrity," "refugee," "contempt" and "filibuster."

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Farai Chideya.

It's late December, time again for those ubiquitous compendiums of the best of and top 10. One list sums up this year more pithily, forcefully and stupendously than most. Yeah, I'm using a lot of $5 words. That's because we're talking about Merriam-Webster's annual ranking of the words people look up most often on its online dictionary. Here to tell us about the top words of 2005 is John Morse, president and publisher of the company.

Mr. Morse, welcome

Mr. JOHN MORSE (President and Publisher, Merriam-Webster): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So which 10 words topped your list?

Mr. MORSE: Well, they're all words from the headlines, but at the very top of the list is a word that isn't often in the headlines themselves, but it's a word I think that maybe we start thinking about by the time we get to the second paragraph. And it's the word `integrity.' And that really leads a list that's followed by `refugee,' `contempt,' `filibuster,' `insipid,' `tsunami,' `pandemic,' `conclave,' `levee' and `inept.'

CHIDEYA: How often do you think people use these words in spoken language as opposed to written language?

Mr. MORSE: I think that they're often used in spoken language. My own hunch, based entirely on just my unscientific thinking about this, is that these words are often looked up as the follow-up to a conversation we might have at work and that a word like `integrity' comes up as we are trying to wrestle with the issues of the day. And then I think we realize that that word is so important to us that even though we have a pretty good idea of what it means, we really want to sharpen our understanding of that word so that we really understand what it is that others might mean by that word and also just as crucially what others might assume we mean if we use that word.

CHIDEYA: What do you think these words say about American culture?

Mr. MORSE: Well, I do think the one that speaks most loudly really is `integrity' because I think that is kind of the lost quality in our lives. I think we really want to understand that situation better and go to the dictionary. When I look and I see words like `pandemic,' I obviously see people who are concerned about what could become a major issue in the year ahead. When you see `levee' and `tsunami,' I think you see the fact that natural disasters really do touch our hearts. When you see `contempt' and `filibuster,' I think you see a people that are concerned about current events.

I mean, overall, what I really see in this list is that the American people are more thoughtful about events and about the way they use language than I think some critics often give us all credit for. And I think--I really see very good news in that list. I see a concerned and interested populace who is interested in the stories that they're hearing and interested in the language that we need to discuss those stories.

CHIDEYA: Finally, what word should we keep an eye on for 2006?

Mr. MORSE: Well, the word that is off to the strongest start, I have to say, is `pandemic.' It was strong in the late days of 2005, and we see no evidence that it's going to slow down going into 2006. So as scary and as disquieting as I think that might be, I think `pandemic' is the word we have to watch.

CHIDEYA: A panoply of pandemic stories coming down the pipeline. John Morse is president and publisher of Merriam-Webster.

Mr. Morse, thank you.

Mr. MORSE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Farai Chideya.

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