Google vs. Merriam-Webster: 2014 Was a Weird Year for Search Terms


Almighty Google, index of indexes, inventory of human life, infinitely linked panlexicon of terms, has released “A Year in Search,” its booleanized breakdown of World Thought. “In 2014,” Google says, “we searched trillions of times. What do these searches say about us?” Who is us? Maybe the Google “user” is the updated version of the mass consumer?

But this isn’t Google as in Big Data, not exactly. Here Google eschews merely sharing its results “in the raw” in favor of interpreting them for the user. This is Google as priestly interpreter of search results. It’s Google as in “Big Data with a Human Face.” Here they are, face first:

Well, what did Google find? It turns out that the human mind is interested in eight things: Sports, Headlines, Fame, Science & Tech, Loss, Day-to-Day Life, Web Culture, and Pop Culture.

In sports, Google begins with the hilarious search term, “highest world cup victory.” By “highest,” users apparently did not mean “world cup victory” by players who were the most “high.” It turns out that this term is Broken English for the largest margin of victory, and it spiked after Germany’s thrashing of Brazil in, well, the World Cup.

In Headlines: Ebola, MH370, etc. In Fame: Jared Leto’s Instagram, Conchita Wurst, etc. Science: hoverboards. Day-to-Day life: Moon vs. Sun, Kale vs. Chia, Teleportation. (How is teleportation a function of everyday life?) Other categories: etc., etc. ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

On the other side of things, Merriam-Webster, purveyor of word meanings, has avoided the Big Data approach… wait, no it hasn’t. It turns out that M-W has chosen its word of the year — culture — on the basis of a spike in its internal search results. Here is their interpretation:

Culture is a big word at back-to-school time each year, but this year lookups extended beyond the academic calendar. The term conveys a kind of academic attention to systematic behavior and allows us to identify and isolate an idea, issue, or group: we speak of a “culture of transparency” or “consumer culture.” Culture can be either very broad (as in “celebrity culture” or “winning culture”) or very specific (as in “test-prep culture” or “marching band culture”).

But I have to admit: it’s interesting to me that the word “culture” — if entered into Google Trends — yields the opposite result:

Searches for the term “culture” have actually declined over the last ten years.

So what accounts for the disparity? Maybe the two results are related. If visitors to Merriam-Webster are searching for the word “culture” — you know, in a dictionary — maybe it’s because the meaning of the word is in doubt. Instead of working to define precisely why this term was searched for, instead of sussing out what it all means, Merriam-Webster just lobbed its biggest “look-up” onto a list.

But what does “culture” mean, and why are people searching for a ubiquitous term in 2014? Someone, maybe, should take a stab at these questions.

The word “culture,” as we know it, begins, like its Wikipedia article says, with Cicero’s “cultura anima” — cultivation of the soul. For centuries it more or less retained this meaning, as a link between education, the cultivation of the individual soul, and what that soul knows. At this point, I would add that the word culture stems from the Latin colere (tend, guard, cultivate, till), which also forms the basis of the words colony and colonial and colonialist.

In the 20th century, the word “culture” was a source of conflict and consternation. With the shadow of colonialism — the assertion of political, economic, and, yes, cultural control over another land — looming over it, the word culture became fraught with controversy. Famously, the Nazi playwright Hanns Johst wrote: “When I hear the word culture… I release the safety on my Browning!” Later, the quite different, better intentioned Germans of the Frankfurt School opposed themselves to the “culture industry,” which they believed would engender false needs in mass culture for the sake of driving capitalism. Even later, the distinctly un-German Jean-Luc Godard wrote, parodying the Nazis, “Whenever I hear the word culture, I bring out my checkbook.”

Back to the present: it’s no big surprise that in 2014, when Google is breaking down our search terms into eight “cultures,” we might begin to wonder what in the hell the word actually means. Pop Culture, Internet Culture, the Culture of Science, Sports Culture, the Culture of Loss.

And if culture once implied growth and maturation, it’s also telling that it is the “word of the year” precisely at a time when all of these concepts have been thrown into question.

In any case, here’s to hoping that 2015’s word-of-the-year is more than a dataset. Words do matter, I think, more than datasets.