2016 Was Many Things, but Not Surreal



In case you missed it — and that would have been hard to do, although the news broke over the holidays — this was Merriam-Webster’s ‘word of the year.’

An intriguing honor, it is bestowed by the Springfield-based company on a word that is simply looked up significantly more frequently by users than the year before, as tracked by the reference-book publisher. “There were multiple occasions on which this word was the one clearly driving people to their dictionary,” said the company.

That’s definitely true: the word was put to use by the media and countless others in reference to everything from terrorist attacks and the scenes they generated to the deaths of icons like the musical artist Prince; from Britain’s exit from the European Union (a.k.a. Brexit), to the attempted coup in Turkey; from the sky-high murder rate in Chicago to that city’s Cubs winning the World Series (OK, that’s another story); from repeated shootings of minorities by police (and shootings of police in retaliation) to Donald Trump’s victory in the November election, alternatively described using the word ‘stunning.’

That term and ‘surreal’ are not technically synonyms, but most people believe they are, so they are used interchangeably. Actually, it seems that, since a lot of people were looking up ‘surreal,’ they must not have known what it means. Good for them. When in doubt, look it up.

Actually, Webster defines surreal as “marked by the intense, irrational reality of a dream,” whatever that means, and offers up synonyms such as ‘unbelievable,’ ‘fantastic,’ ‘bizarre,’ ‘weird,’ ‘odd,’ and even ‘unreal.’

While on some levels we can understand the popular use of ‘surreal,’ considering those synonyms, it was probably not the word that should have been chosen.

‘Upsetting,’ ‘distressing,’ and ‘horrible’ would apply to most, if not all, of the above-mentioned events, depending on your leaning, but they were not, or should not have been, unbelievable given what was happening here and around the world — or not happening, as the case may be.

In that respect, 2016 was quite a bit like another extremely turbulent year in national and world history. That would be 1968, of course.

Those unforgettable 12 months were rocked by, chronologically: North Korea’s capture of the USS Pueblo; the Tet Offensive, which turned the tide of the Vietnam War — at least in the minds of most Americans who watched it unfold on TV; the student strike at Columbia University, which mirrored protests on campuses and in cities around the globe; the assassination of Martin Luther King; the assassination of Bobby Kennedy; two black U.S. athletes raising their fists in protest during the playing of the National Anthem at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City; the riotous Democratic National Convention in Chicago; and the election of Richard Nixon, who, sounding quite a bit like the man voted into office last November, would coin the phrase ‘silent majority’ to describe those who supported his policies, including a decision in late 1969 not to seek a quick end to the war.

The similarities are, well, surreal. Only they’re not.

And it’s safe to say that ‘surreal’ was probably looked up quite a number of times in 1968, and was probably used interchangeably with ‘unreal,’ which was coming into its own by that time.

Only everything that was happening was very real, and reflective of a time of deep divides, personal suffering, and a strong desire for real change. Sound familiar?

As 2017 begins, we can only hope that people won’t be using ‘surreal’ as much, not because they actually understand what it means, but because there won’t be cause to.

Actually, what we hope for is a return to a time when the many things that happened over the course of an utterly forgettable 2016 could truly be called ‘unbelievable.’

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