- Wednesday, October 16 is National Dictionary Day in the United States.
- Merriam-Webster has compiled a list of the most looked-up words in its online dictionary, and determined what people consider the most confusing words in the English language.
- Words like conundrum and the similar-sounding affect and effect continue to confuse people.
- Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories.
When you don’t know the meaning of a word, there’s one obvious place to turn: the dictionary.
Naturally, some words tend to confuse people more than others, as evidenced by Merriam-Webster’s list of the 10 most looked-up words in its online dictionary.
So what are the most sought-after definitions in the English language? Probably not what you expect. You won’t find hyper-obscure scientific terms, for example, because not enough people know them to bother looking them up.
Rather, the most looked-up words are ones that are “middle of the road linguistically” – common enough to perpetually perplex readers, as Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper told Business Insider.
Here are the 10 most looked-up words and their definitions:
Someone is pretentious if they express unwarranted or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature. Think beer snobs or Prius drivers, as the stereotypes go.
Ubiquitous is used to describe something that is widespread and constantly encountered, like television or fast food.
Someone is cynical if they are distrustful of people’s motives, or believe that human conduct is motivated primarily by self-interest. A cynical person might question why you offer to do them a favour, thinking to themselves, “what do they really want?”
Simply put, you’re apathetic if you don’t care about something. A synonym for apathetic is “indifferent.”
A conundrum is an intricate and difficult problem. According to Merriam-Webster, it’s often used to describe seemingly unanswerable questions involving ethics, sociology, and economics, but it can also refer generally to any puzzle or mystery.
Albeit is a one-word substitute for “even though,” like when you describe an extravagant, albeit expensive, night on the town.
Something that is ambiguous can be understood in two or more possible ways. For example, the sentence “the peasants are revolting” is ambiguous, because it could mean the peasants are rebelling in the streets, or that they are physically disgusting. We need more information to clear up the ambiguity.
Integrity is the firm adherence to a code of values. We expect our leaders to act with moral integrity, for example, and musicians who “sell out” might get criticised for compromising their artistic integrity.
The definitions of these words aren’t confusing, but remembering when to use each one can sure be tricky. A good rule of thumb is that “affect” is usually a verb and “effect” is usually a noun. The weather can affect your mood, and a new policy can have a devastating effect.
OK, so this one isn’t confusing at all, at least when taken at face value. But what exactly is love, if you had to explain it? Merriam-Webster speculates it’s that exact question that drives so many people to look up “love” in the dictionary. For what it’s worth, the dictionary defines love as “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties” or “attraction based on sexual desire.”
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