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Capitalism and socialism wed as words of the year

By LEANNE ITALIE Published: December 6, 2012

An interesting election-related phenom, to be sure, but malarkey is no dead Big Bird or “binders full of women” — two Romneyisms from the defeated candidate's televised matchups with Obama that evoked another of Merriam-Webster's Top 10 — meme.

While malarkey's history is shaded, meme's roots are easily traced to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, a Brit who coined the term for a unit of cultural inheritance, not unlike genes and DNA. The retired professor at the University of Oxford made up the word in 1976 for “The Selfish Gene,” a book he published light years before the Internet and social media's capacity to take memes viral.

Sokolowski said traffic for meme more than doubled this year over 2011, with dramatic spikes pegged to political-related subjects that included Romney's Big Bird and binders remarks, social media shares of images pegged to Hillary Clinton texting and Obama's “horses and bayonets” debate rebuke of Romney in an exchange over the size of the Navy.

Dawkins, reached at home in Oxford, was tickled by the dictionary shoutout.

“I'm very pleased that it's one of the 10 words that got picked out,” he said. “I'm delighted. I hope it may bring more people to understand something about evolution.”

The book in which he used meme for the first time is mostly about the gene as the primary unit of natural selection, or the Darwinian idea that only the strongest survive. In the last chapter, he said, he wanted to describe some sort of cultural replicator.

And he wanted a word that sounded like “gene,” so he took a twist on the Greek mimeme, which is the origin of “mime” and “mimesis,” a scientific term meaning imitation.

“It's a very clever coinage,” lauded the lexicographer Sokolowski.

Other words in Merriam-Webster's Top 10 for 2012:

• Touche, thanks in part to “Survivor” contestant Kat Edorsson misusing the word to mean “tough luck” rather than point well made, before she was voted off the island in May. Look-ups at were up sevenfold this year over 2011.

• Schadenfreude, made up of the German words for “damage” and “joy,” meaning taking pleasure in the misery of others, was used broadly in the media after the election. Look-ups increased 75 percent. The word in English dates to 1895.

• Professionalism, up 12 percent this year over last. Sokolowski suspects the bump might have been due to the bad economy and more job seekers, or a knowing “glimpse into what qualities people value.”

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