Dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster recently released its list of the top 10 words of the year the words that visitors to the company's Internet sites looked up most often in 2004. Here, we explain the popularity of the honored terms, defining them where necessary and explaining the causes of their extraordinary popularity. (Note: Profanities were ineligible, meaning that adherents of the evergreen "assclown" will have to content themselves with knowing that it remained the most commonly used word in Dog Playing Poker for the second year running. We're all winners!)
1) Blog Merriam-Webster defines it as "a website that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments and often hyperlinks." You know it better as that thing your friend the part-time bead artist expects you to check regularly if you want to be invited to his one-room hovel on Christmas Eve for Oreos and Wild Turkey. (There may be a test!) "'Blog," of course, is short for "`we`b log." Related terms that flew just under M-Webster's radar include "'blab," or `we`b lab; "'bland," a contraction of `we`b land, i.e., registered domain; and "'black Muslim," a `we`b `site that` lack`s` any significant amount of multicultural content.
2) Incumbent If you were looking for proof that voters were going to opt to stick with the status quo this year, you need only have noticed that 'net surfers were looking up "incumbent" at a far faster rate than mirror-image terms like "challenger," "senator" or "qualified." What worries us is pondering why so many people and quasi-literate ones, to boot, who were obviously able to find their computers' start buttons without help needed a simple word like "incumbent" defined for them. Had they heard it used as a passing reference in one or more of the big debates, and been unsure if Sen. Kerry was blasting President Bush's record or his own? Did they log on for clarification of election-night news coverage, fretful that Dan Rather was talking in Commie code again? Or were they actually ferreting out the word's less common definition, looking for ways to tell friends that it's "incumbent" on us all to ignore anything Elton John has to say about anybody?
3) Electoral As in "college," of course. Also a favorite search word among visiting Japanese businessmen looking to score some Revitra.
4) Insurgent Another antonym for "incumbent," if you think about it, but also a wartime brickbat made ubiquitous by the U.S. Defense Department's retirement of the precursors "freedom fighter," "homeowner" and "afternoon worshipper."
5) Hurricane "Hurricane," eh? Nope, doesn't ring a bell.
6) Cicada An insect that attained new levels of notoriety last summer, when the 17-year periodic Brood X infested forests throughout the eastern half of the United States. The word's impressive No. 6 showing was likely goosed by the remarkable winning streak of the Tempe Cicadas, a pee-wee league softball club whose dream trip to the state semifinals was only mildly marred by their widely decried use of performance enhancers.
7) Peloton If this one made you scratch your head like a country bumpkin in an old R. Crumb cartoon, you're as blissfully ignorant of the sport of cycling as is your old pal the Dog. Friends with Lance Armstrong fixations tell us that it's a froggie word for the main body of riders in a race. It also showed up as a favorite query word on French e-commerce site www.leamazon.com, where Gitanes-smoking Grisham fans are just now digging into The Peloton Brief.
8) Partisan Some kind of cheese, apparently.
9) Sovereignty There's no better definition of this political-science staple than the one President Bush gave at an Aug. 6 press conference, when he was asked to explain what "tribal sovereignty" means in the 21st century:
"Tribal sovereignty means that; it's sovereign. I mean, you're a you're a you've been given sovereignty, and you're viewed as a sovereign entity. (Pause) And therefore the relationship between the federal government and tribes is one between sovereign entities."
To quote Olson Johnson in Blazing Saddles, "Now, who can argue with that?" All across the country, keyboards clacked noisily, as busy-fingered wonks and wonkettes rushed to find further amplification of Bush's curiously palindromic mini-lecture. Related searches: "reflexive property"; "let a = a"; "assisted suicide."
10) Defenestration To get the full skinny on this under-the-wire winner, you have to follow the link from merriam-webster.com to the online encyclopedia britannica.com. As practiced in the Prague of the 1600s, "defenestration" is a phenomenon of social unrest based on the principle that, when your rulers have demonstrated their utter unworthiness and inability to lead, it is time to pitch them out the nearest open window. See "Bush on sovereignty," above.