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The 50 Most-Looked-Up Words from NYTimes.com

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The New York Times has an online feature that allows users to get dictionary definitions of words within feature articles. Just double-click a word, a question mark appears, click that, and you get a definition. Now they've crunched the numbers and revealed the 50 most-looked-up words of 2010 so far. You can see the top 20 above, but there's a catch -- one of those words was coined by a mischievous writer at the Times. Can you figure out which one it is?

From the article analyzing the results:

We all have blind spots in our vocabulary. Going through the list without benefit of context, I'll admit — somewhat reluctantly — that there were at least two words for which I couldn't formulate coherent definitions: "démarche" ("a line of action; move or countermove") and "cynosure" ("a person or thing that is a center of attention or interest"). I might have been able to puzzle them out in context, but standing alone, they stumped me.

For some reason "cynosure" (which can be pronounced with a short or long vowel sound in the first syllable) seems to be crosswired in my brain with the completely unrelated "sinecure" ("an office or position providing income but requiring little work").

Perhaps the Greek roots would help me figure out "cynosure"? No, not this time: it comes from the Greek for "dog's tail." So how did it acquire its current meaning? Apparently "the Dog's Tail" is what we now call the Little Dipper, the constellation that includes the North Star. Thus the "center of attention or interest."

Read the rest for more analysis. You can check out the Top 50 as a Google Spreadsheet or a PDF.

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'Froyo,' 'Troll,' and 'Sriracha' Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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Looking for the right word to describe the time you spend drinking before heading out to a party, or a faster way to say “frozen yogurt?" Merriam-Webster is here to help. The 189-year-old English vocabulary giant has just added 250 new words and definitions to their online dictionary, including pregame and froyo.

New words come and go quickly, and it’s Merriam-Webster’s job to keep tabs on the terms that have staying power. “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the expansion of the language, and reaches into all the various cubbies and corners of the lexicon,” they wrote in their announcement.

Froyo is just one of the recent additions to come from the culinary world. Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish; choux pastry, a type of dough; and sriracha, a Thai chili sauce that’s been around for decades but has just recently exploded in the U.S., are now all listed on Merriam-Webster's website.

Of course, the internet was once again a major contributor to this most recent batch of words. Some new terms, like ransomware (“malware that requires the victim to pay a ransom to access encrypted files”) come from the tech world, while words like troll ("to harass, criticize, or antagonize [someone] especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts”) were born on social media. Then there’s the Internet of Things, a concept that shifts the web off our phones and computers and into our appliances.

Hive mind, dog whistle, and working memory are just a few of the new entries to receive the Merriam-Webster stamp of approval. To learn more about how some words make it into the dictionary while others get left out, check these behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionary editors.

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How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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