A nation, a workplace, an ethnicity, a passion, an outsized personality. The people who comprise these things, who fawn or rail against them, are behind Merriam-Webster's 2014 word of the year: culture. The word joins Oxford Dictionaries' "vape," a darling of the e-cigarette movement, and "exposure," declared the year's winner at Dictionary.com during a time of tragedy and fear due to Ebola. Merriam-Webster based its pick and nine runners-up on significant increases in lookups this year over last on Merriam-Webster.com, along with notable, often culture-driven—if you will—spikes of concentrated interest. "We're simply using the word culture more frequently," says Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster. "It may be a fad. It may not. It may simply be evolution."
Sokolowski noted that the reasons words are looked up aren't just about not knowing what they mean. Sometimes, he said, we seek inspiration or a way to check in on ourselves. Of more than 100 million lookups on the website each month and a similar number on the company's app, culture enjoyed a 15% year-over-year increase. The word is a "chameleon," Sokolowski says. "When you put it next to another word it means something very different. For example, 'consumer culture' or 'rape culture,' which we've been reading about lately." There's the "culture of transparency" in government and business, and "celebrity culture," and the "culture of winning" in sports, he notes. "It's a word that can be very specific, like 'test prep culture,' or it can be very, very broad, like 'coffee culture.'" In the No. 2 spot is "nostalgia," followed by insidious, legacy, feminism, je ne sais quoi, innovation, surreptitious, autonomy, and morbidity. (Read more Word of the Year stories.)