A tsunami of terms

The dictionary may well seem like a passive object – for hundreds of years it has been a sedentary repository of words, sitting idly on a shelf waiting to be picked up and used. But if you had the ability to make it an active object, one that could tell us what words people were looking for each hour of each day over the past few hundred years it would be enormously illuminating, providing information on the terms people need to resort to a dictionary for.

The online dictionaries that we have today do have this capability, as can be illustrated through analysing the page views of certain words in dictionaries online.

For example: looking at four words (tsunami, earthquake, aftershock, and meltdown) in the days before the recent disaster in Japan we see that they have a small number of page views – none of the words was looked up more than 11 times in any given day prior to March 11th. On that day the number of times that tsunami was looked up increased dramatically:

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