The 10 Most Frequently Looked-Up Words

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According to Merriam-Webster’s website, these are the ten most frequently search terms on the site—not what is trending now, but the words that consistently rank among the top searches.

1. Affect/Effect
This double entry is not surprising; the confusion between affect and effect is one of the most common among homophones (words that sound alike but are spelled differently) and near homophones. Merriam-Webster advises that writers can use a simple rule in mind when determining which word to use—affect is usually a verb and effect is usually a noun—but exceptions in which the reverse is true are frequent enough to render this advice scarcely useful.

Another mnemonic to help you distinguish the two is that to affect is to have an effect, and an affect leads to an effect. Affect usually means “have an effect or influence,” as in “Will not completing this assignment affect my grade?” while an effect is something that is the result of a causative phenomenon (hence the phrase “cause and effect”), as in “Will not completing this have an effect on my grade?”

But note that affect can also serve as a noun meaning “aspect of an emotion” or “evidence of an emotion.” In psychology, to say that one presents a flat affect is to express that the person exhibits little or no emotion. In addition, effect is sometimes used as a verb meaning “bring about,” as in “Our goal is to effect a change in policy.” One can also say, “Our goal is to affect a change in policy,” but that means that one merely wishes to have an impact; to effect a change is to deliberately create the change.

As a verb, affect also means “create the appearance of,” as when one affects a sophisticated manner to conceal humble origins, or “pretend,” as when one affects not to know about something that one is actually aware of. Either sense implies deception.

The adjective affective means “emotional” or “expressing emotion,” while affecting, as an adjective, means “evoking a strong emotional response.” Effective means “producing a decisive or desired effect” and pertains to being actual, operative, or ready (and rarely, as a noun, denotes one who is effective), while effectual means “producing, or able to produce, a desired effect.”

2. Albeit
This archaic-seeming word means “even though”; one would write, for example, “The jacket was expensive, albeit a practical necessity in cold weather.” It is one in a category of compound words combined to serve as an adverb, such as notwithstanding and nevertheless, or a conjunction such as the rare word howbeit or the common term whereas.

3. Ambiguous
Ambiguous means “doubtful or uncertain” or “unexplainable,” but usually it denotes something that can be understood in two distinct ways, as when one exclaims, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” which does not inform the listener about whether the speaking is commenting positively or negatively. The first element, ambi-, meaning “both” or “on both sides,” is also seen in ambivalent (with which it is often confused, though that word means “having contradictory feelings”) and ambidextrous. The noun form of ambiguous is ambiguity.

4. Apathetic
Apathetic is an adjective meaning “indifferent” or “uncaring”; the noun form, apathy, literally means “lack of feeling.” (This post discusses this and other words formed from the root pathos, meaning “feeling” or “suffering.”)

5. Conundrum
Conundrum refers to complex, difficult problems or, more informally, a mystery or puzzle (or a riddle with a punning answer). The word is, ironically, itself a mystery, with an unknown etymology, although one theory is that hundreds of years ago, an Oxford University student coined the word to parody Latin; indeed, more than one spelling among various forms used in the word’s early years began with qu-, often a sign of Latin origin.

6. Cynical
A cynical person is one skeptical of others’ motives or convinced that people always put their own interests before those of others. The word derives from the name of a Greek school of philosophy, whose adherents were called Cynics (from the Greek term kynikos, meaning “like a dog”); one with a cynical attitude is a cynic, and the quality of being cynical is called cynicism.

7. Integrity
Integrity is the quality of being fair and honest (said of a person) or of being complete or sound (said of an object), as in the notion of structural integrity of something constructed.

8. Love
Love is the most curious entry in this list, as it is a deceptively simple word. Love, however, can—as a noun or a verb—express a passion for anything (“I love that movie!”) as well as romantic and sexual feelings or behavior, in addition to religious passion. Loving and lovable are adjectival forms, and one who loves is a lover.

9. Pretentious
Someone who has an exaggerated sense of importance or worth is pretentious; such a person is said to have pretensions, even if only one category of pretension exists, and a pretense is a deception (as in the redundant but idiomatic phrase “false pretenses”). The word is derived from the Latin verb praetendere, which literally means “stretch in front”; pre means “before,” and tendere, meaning “stretch,” is the basis of tender (as in “tender one’s resignation”) and tendon, the term for connective tissue that stretches between muscles and bones. (Tender in the sense of “sensitive” or “loving,” among other meanings, is unrelated.) By extension, the notion of literal stretching gave way to the meanings “stretching the truth” or “acting as if something not true is true,” and one who acts pretentiously is a pretender.

10. Ubiquitous
Something widespread is ubiquitous; the quality of something existing everywhere or being encountered often is ubiquity.

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