Miriam-Webster has declared “surreal” the word of the year for 2016. As Ron Sakolsky argues below, they don’t seem to know what the word means, which doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in their dictionary. At least they didn’t choose “anarchy”!
HANDS OFF THE WORD “SURREAL”!
The enemies of poetry have always been obsessed with making it a slave to their immediate ends. They see jet bombers without thinking of Icarus.
On December 19, 2016, the gatekeepers of discourse at Miriam-Webster Dictionary named “surreal” as its Word of the Year.
Far from taking this dubious distinction as a compliment, the living surrealist movement is appalled by Webster’s simplistic, distorted and one-dimensional characterization of the term “surreal” as being relegated to descriptions of disaster situations. As surrealists, we must speak for ourselves to provide a larger surrealist context for understanding the deeper questions of why such disasters happen in the first place and how to transform the present reality of which they are the inevitable byproduct.
According to the Dictionary’s editor, Peter Sokolowski, “Miriam-Webster, which first began tracking [computer] search trends in 1996, found a spike for the word after the 9/11 attacks. We noticed the same thing after the Boston Marathon bombings and the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The single biggest spike in look-ups came the day after Donald Trump’s election. Surreal has become the sort of word that people seek in moments of great shock and tragedy.” To situate the term “surreal” exclusively among the disquieting deeds mentioned above is to do the English language a grave disservice. Surrealism remains the sworn adversary of all forms of authoritarian orthodoxy rather than merely acting as their expressive dimension.
If “surreal’ is to be remembered as the “go-to” word for 2016, let it be recalled for all of its many wonders rather than being stereotyped as merely a descriptor for the malaise associated with terrorism and electoral politics and the terrorism of electoral politics. It is true that the word “surreal” brilliantly evokes that visceral sense of the uncanny associated with such strangely unsettling events, but it is capable of doing so much more. Sokolowski demonstrates his ignorance of surrealism by saying, “I believe there are words such as surreal or love that help us grapple with things difficult to understand”. If he had spent any time at all attempting to understand the subversive qualities of the “surreal” rather than concentrating his attention on mitigating the horrors of the real, he would not have juxtaposed surrealism and love. Love is not foreign to surrealism, but is one of its guiding inspirations along with Liberty and Poetry.
Hands off the word “surreal”! Release it from the miserabilist Procrustean chopping block where Webster has editorially imprisoned it, and let its convulsive beauty illuminate not only the dystopian nightmare but the utopian dream of a world in which we can all live more poetic lives. And rest assured that what we surrealists call the Marvelous will be the playing field for our passional attractions not just for the year 2016 but for the entirety of the 21st century.
Ron Sakolsky, Inner Island Surrealist Group
December 22, 2016