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The Top Word of 2013?

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Image courtesy of Kingsway School

What is the most culturally significant word of the year in the English language? Make your bet. “Drone”? Fat chance. “Rape”? Nope. “Wiretapping?” Nah. “Pope”? Shouldda, especially after Time made him Da Man from this planet. But this time the legislators are the folks of Merriam-Webster Inc., and they have just announced the winner: “science.”

Oy, gevalt! According to the laudable lexicographic institution based in Springfield, Mass., the decision is made “by analyzing the top look-ups in the online dictionary at Merriam-Webster.com and focusing on the words that showed the greatest increase in look-ups this year as compared to last year.” Look-ups, eh? Merriam-Webster proudly adds that the final tally is “based on approximately 100 million look-ups a month.”

Should we care? S‘il vous plait. After all, this is the year in which the humanities were officially buried. In September, “The Heart of the Matter,” a scathing report issued by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences—did the AAAS really need to plagiarize Graham Greene’s 1948 title?—diagnosed our country as having what I would call a decaying soul. The report offered a series of hopeful assessments: that three out of four employers in the United States want to hire people with a mind that is capable of “critical thinking, complex problem-solving, as well as written and oral communication.” It also stated that 19 percent of members of Congress were humanities majors.

Is that encouraging? Our government isn’t only incapable of political compromise. It frequently feels as if it is bleeding linguistically, judging only by the stunning amount of non sequiturs it manufactures. The real bad news, according to the AAAS’s Humanities Report Card, is that only 13 percent of college students learn foreign languages that are considered critical for global competitiveness; that in 2011 the humanities received only 0.48 of the amount of research money that the sciences and technology received; that the gap between average math and verbal scores on the SAT is growing; and that reading for pleasure declined 11 percent from 1992 to 2008.

In subsequent news, it was declared that the number of humanities majors nationwide had fallen by half from 1966 to 2010, from 14 percent to 7 percent. Yes, that is 7 out of 100 students. Small wonder that “science” is the word of choice this year.

My qualm is that regardless of how many jeremiads followed the AAAS report, Merriam-Webster didn’t manage to produce enough look-ups to put “humanities” into the top-10 words for 2013. By the way, the four runner-ups were “cognitive,” “rapport,” “communication,” and “niche.” (As consolation, “metaphor” is listed as number 10, which won’t bring any sigh of relief, at least to me, since I live under the impression that the United States suffers from an incurable malady: an overabundance of cheap patriotic metaphors.)

In any case, I find it bizarre that the word “science” produced that many look-ups. Don’t people know what it means?

In contrast, the humanities constitute, confessedly, an abstruse, ethereal concept. A few weeks ago, a superb student of mine asked me to explain it. “Is it what we study to understand humans? Then biology must be part of it.” I suggested to her that the humanities are disciplines in which we discuss what being human really is, how we behave, what is behind our behavior. “But doesn’t economics do that, too? And business? And medicine?”

I then invited her to … well, look it up. She came across—in Merriam-Webster, no less—an ample list topped by a perplexing definition, actually two: “the quality or state of being human” and (talk about the lack of economy in lexicons!) “the quality or state of being humane.”
Is humane the attribute of being human? Or is it the other way around?

My student also found out that the humanities are “branches of learning (as philosophy, arts, or languages) that invigorate human constructs. … ” Again, not a helpful definition. In the end, our conversation made it clear—to both of us—that the humanities not only need to be defended; they also need to be properly defined, since as a culture we seem to have forgotten exactly what they do. (That is, if they do anything at all!)

Of course, I should be talking here about science, since that is the favorite word of the year. Do I need to? Everyone else is already doing it.

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