Why We Turn to the Word 'Surreal' Whenever Something Terrible Happens (2023)

Following the terror attacks that took place Sept. 11, 2001, people across the country began searching Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary for the same word. The word was not “rubble,” or “triage,” or even “terrorism,” but “surreal.” And they did the same thing again after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. And again, after the Boston Marathon bombing.

In March 2020, when many cities were preparing for stay-at-home orders because of COVID-19, the fear and uncertainty of the moment surfaced in the dictionary’s top searches. People were looking up technical words, such as “pandemic,” “quarantine,” and “virus.” But they were also looking up philosophical ones: searches swelled for “apocalypse,” “Kafkaesque,” “martial law,” “calamity,” “pestilence,” “contagion,” “well-being,” “hysteria,” “hoarding,” “self-isolation,” “vulnerable,” “unprecedented,” “triage,” “essential,” or “poignant.” And of course: “surreal.”

Merriam-Webster’s definition for “surreal” is an adjective meaning “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream,” or “unbelievable.” We might think of a dictionary as an objective tool, a book that provides the meanings of words. However, readers were using it for something else entirely. “People were turning to the dictionary not for facts but for what I would call philosophy,” Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster, said of these moments of crisis. “You’re trying to wrap your head around an idea or phenomenon, and you go to the dictionary to go back to basics.”

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The dictionary offers its readers clarity, especially when grappling with events that feel inconceivable. Whether in the form of violence or disease, trauma can upend our understanding of life. Moments such as these do more than make us fear for our physical safety: they shake our sense of order, rattling our understanding of the world and the way we believe it should function.

Reference books such as the dictionary return us to a domain in which things have their place: information is methodical and organized, and the answer to any question can be found, if only we know where to look. Our humble dictionaries, almanacs, cookbooks, and how-to books have served this quiet purpose for centuries: functioning as a refuge from ambiguity in times of turmoil. These American “bibles,” those dog-eared books for daily life, are the unexamined touchstones of American society. Those books, which sold tens of millions of copies, addressed the challenges, conflicts, and insecurities of their time.

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The dictionary has served so many different purposes throughout history: reference guide, judge, schoolteacher, even moral arbiter. Whether it was Noah Webster trying to construct a patriotic American identity using language, or Frederick Douglass picking up a Webster book to teach himself to write and to secure his freedom, Webster’s work has long been more than a shelf ornament.

Today, the editors at Merriam-Webster have been asked to serve as friend, guide, and philosopher for contemporary readers, functioning as a kind of “public utility,” Sokolowski said. Truth and understanding may vary based on age, geography, what media you consume, and what your political affiliations are, but there is a bridge to be found in online dictionaries in particular, a broadening of the exchange between readers and lexicographers—and even among readers themselves. The definitions of words may change over time, but a word still exists to describe phenomena we don’t understand, and its definition can be found. Now, we need only an Internet connection.

Sokolowski told me repeatedly that the dictionary is “neither an accusation nor a diagnosis.” I’d contend that it can be both, but it can also serve a different purpose: it can take the pulse of the population, expressing some anxiety or national trend through a surge of interconnected words and their web of meanings.

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This impulse to define—especially in moments of chaos—sometimes seems an attempt to avoid the messiness of mourning. The reaction to many of these events is confusion, followed by disbelief and even rage. If national grief were to be boxed into the Kübler-Ross stages, Americans are often stuck in the first three: denial, anger, and bargaining. In the word “surreal,” there is a refusal. By understanding tragedy as “surreal,” we seem to be saying “this cannot really be happening.”

It’s why so many of these “surreal” incidents—whether 9/11 or Sandy Hook—have become ripe for conspiracy theories. Some people find more solace in refusing to believe that these events could and did happen. To this swath of Americans, even a shadowy cabal of puppet-masters is easier to stomach than the idea that a plane could be hijacked mid-air, or that someone could walk into an elementary school and massacre children.

So those who accept these events as true are forced to look for other kinds of answers. The searches for words seem to be asking much deeper questions: How could this happen? And why?

The birth of the word surreal itself came out of those same questions. French poet Guillaume Apollinaire first invented the word “surréalisme,” from sur– meaning “beyond” and réalisme meaning “realism.” The ensuing surrealist movement was a direct response to the chaos of World War I, as artists reckoned with the loss of so many millions of young lives and continued to grapple with the trauma of the ensuing decades, from the Spanish Civil War to World II. The surrealists believed in the power of the subconscious, in the hidden meanings of life which existed outside of the material world. “So strong is the belief in life, in what is most fragile in life—real life, I mean—that in the end this belief is lost,” wrote André Breton, leader of the surrealist movement.

The fragility of life is at the heart of those occurrences we deem surreal. Perhaps nothing encapsulates that more in recent memory than the COVID-19 pandemic. To suddenly find that even the most mundane spaces—grocery stores, subway cars, offices, a friend’s home—are rife with danger is an experience that seems like a bad dream. That vibrant cities could shut down overnight or that our government could let more than half a million people die from a virus all seem “surreal” in the truest sense of the word.

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Whether world war or a global pandemic, these periods of history can feel nightmarish, especially given the bedrocks of American belief. Much of our national identity stems from our belief in meritocracy: that if we work hard, we will be rewarded. In a nation that values optimism, practicality, and planning, it’s difficult to cope with the suddenness of trauma: the fact that some questions cannot be fully answered. It’s why we struggle to mourn, to sit with our suffering and to see it as real, to be awake with pain and not to understand it as “the irrational reality of a dream.”

Whether in 2021 or 1921, we have tended to respond to uncertainty in much the same way we always have: with a desire for clarity, for absolute truths. The craving for definition has not gone away, even if the market for print dictionaries wanes.

Nearly two centuries after the first publication of Webster’s dictionary, Americans turn to this book when they feel confused, afraid or destabilized. And the dictionary continues to serve a vital purpose in times of tumult. “If the entire country is looking up a word…implicitly the country is asking us a question,” Sokolowski said. “And what is the dictionary for but to answer questions about language?”

Adapted from AMERICANON: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books by Jess McHugh published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021

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TIME Ideas hosts the world’s leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

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“Surreal” is often used to describe something shocking. People might use the word when they cannot believe — or do not want to believe — reality. “Surreal” can have a negative or positive meaning. For example, the Grand Canyon or a trip to the Moon could be described as surreal.

When did people start using the word surreal? ›

The word ‘surrealism’ was first coined in March 1917 by Guillaume Apollinaire.

What does it mean when something feels surreal? ›

If you describe something as surreal, you mean that the elements in it are combined in a strange way that you would not normally expect, like in a dream.

Is the word surreal overused? ›

In everyday language, both “surreal” and “surrealistic” can simply mean dreamlike, unreal, strange, and so on. In our opinion, though, they’re a bit overused.

Can surreal be a compliment? ›

Surreal is neither negative nor positive.

Where do we use surreal? › Examples of ‘surreal’ in a sentence

  • They possess an intensity that feels almost surreal. …
  • The entire experience was surreal from the outset. …
  • Something a bit surreal might just be unfolding before us. …
  • Just speaking to him was a bit surreal. …
  • Some of its recommendations sound slightly surreal.

What is the origin of surreal? ›

Surrealism originated in the late 1910s and early ’20s as a literary movement that experimented with a new mode of expression called automatic writing, or automatism, which sought to release the unbridled imagination of the subconscious.

What are 3 facts about Surrealism? ›

Interesting Facts about Surrealism

The Surrealist movement was started by French Poet Andre Breton who wrote The Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. Some artists today consider themselves Surrealists. Surrealism means “above realism”. Dadaism didn’t mean anything.

How do you describe surreal feelings? ›

strange; not seeming real; like a dream: Driving through the total darkness was a slightly surreal experience.

What is the synonym of surreal? ›

synonyms: phantasmagoric, phantasmagorical, surrealistic unrealistic. not realistic. adjective. resembling a dream.

What is the opposite of surreal? ›

Opposite of having a sense of vagueness, insubstantiality, or incongruousness. real. tangible. realistic. actual.

What’s the difference between so real and surreal? ›

The real is independent of the act of reaction and perception. The real is the expected, it’s conventional, the norm, like a car on the road. Surreal is the abnormal, unexpected, like a small ship atop a building. Surprise is the crucible of surrealism.

Why is literally so overused? ›

When people use literally in this way, they mean it metaphorically, of course. It’s a worn-out word, though, because it prevents people from thinking up a fresh metaphor for whatever it is they want to describe.

Who created the word surreal? ›

The word ‘surrealist’ (suggesting ‘beyond reality’) was coined by the French avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire in the preface to a play performed in 1917.

What does it mean when the situation is unreal? ›

If you say that a situation is unreal, you mean that it is so strange that you find it difficult to believe it is happening.

Is Van Gogh surreal? ›

Although they represented different schools (Van Gogh was a Post-Impressionist while Dali was the leader of the Surrealist movement), they can be compared based on the influence of their legacy on world art.

Is Surrealism still used today? ›

As a true bridge between the dream world, the unconscious and the political struggle, Surrealism transports us. Today it is celebrated through photography, painting and sculpture, offering us an eccentric and mysterious world.

Is surreal the same as unreal? ›

Unreal is something imaginary, or can be an illusion. That is, something not real. “She had unreal expectations of her new job.” Surreal means something that is bizarre.

Is Surrealism based on dreams? ›

Surrealists were also deeply interested in interpreting dreams as conduits for unspoken feelings and desires. The works explored here did not begin with preconceived notions of a finished product; rather, they were provoked by dreams, or emerged from subconscious associations between images, text, and their meanings.

What are the 2 main types of Surrealism? ›

Two types of Surrealism

We can divide Surrealism into two main types; veristic art and automatism art.

What makes someone a surrealist? ›

Surrealist artists—like Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, or Michael Cheval, among many others—seek to explore the unconscious mind as a way of creating art, resulting in dreamlike, sometimes bizarre imagery across endless mediums.

What is the root of Surrealism? ›


Surrealism officially began with Dadaist writer André Breton’s 1924 Surrealist manifesto, but the movement formed as early as 1917, inspired by the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, who captured street locations with a hallucinatory quality.

What is Surrealism definition for dummies? ›

uncountable noun. Surrealism is a style in art and literature in which ideas, images, and objects are combined in a strange way, like in a dream.

Is Surrealism a nonsense? ›

Whilst Surrealism privileges an authenticity surrounding the violent displacement of the subject, nonsense commits to neither reality nor non-reality. Instead nonsense problematizes natural as well as nonsensical laws. This is particularly evident in the corporality of Carroll’s world.

What is it called when something feels unreal? ›

Derealization is an alteration in the perception of the external world, causing those with the condition to perceive it as unreal, distant, distorted or falsified.

What kind of word is surreal? ›

Merriam-Webster’s definition for “surreal” is an adjective meaning “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream,” or “unbelievable.” We might think of a dictionary as an objective tool, a book that provides the meanings of words.

What’s a word for Hard to believe? ›

If you are incredulous that means you can’t or won’t believe something. If you tell people about those aliens you met the other night, they’ll probably give you an incredulous look.

What is confusing about Surrealism? ›

Surrealism is a movement that focuses on telling a story or conveying meaning via language and/or imagery that really isn’t connected in a logical sequence. It is often confusing, yet conveys meaning even if readers aren’t sure they understand the point or, if there even is a point.

What’s another word for I can’t believe it? › What is another word for couldn’t believe?

disbelieving dumbfounded
gobsmacked incredulous
shocked unbelieving

Can a picture be surreal? ›

Surreal photography represents unconscious ideas, dreams, and emotions. Examples of surreal photography can be seen in the work of contemporary photographers like Brooke Shaden and Kyle Thompson. They work to create dreamlike tableaux that use modern methods to continue the surrealist tradition.

What is the longest F word? ›

floccinaucinihilipilification (29).

What is the most unpopular word? ›

1. Moist. Moist is by far the clear winner when it comes to least favorite words. Plus, moist has been around since at least 1325 A.D., which means people have had plenty of time to get sick of its use.

What is the hardest word to say in the word? › 7 most difficult English words that will let you forget what you wanted to say

  • Rural. …
  • Sixth. …
  • Sesquipedalian. …
  • Phenomenon. …
  • Onomatopoeia. …
  • Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. …
  • Worcestershire.

Was Picasso a surreal? ›

Picasso never stopped renewing his representation of reality. Following his collaboration with Diaghilev for the Russian ballet and influenced by Apollinaire, then André Breton, the artist gradually shifts to an art associated with surrealism beginning in 1924.

Does surrealism have to be realistic? ›

Surrealism is a form of art that uses the creative imagination to generate images or ideas that are impossible in reality.

Why do Millennials use the word like so much? ›

Recent studies have suggested that the word might also have a social function, acting as a cue to seem informal and friendly, another reason why it’s so prevalent among young girls. Over the years, the way we use like has been used as a prime example of how younger generations are destroying the English language.

What do you call someone who is always literal? ›

A literalist is one that engages (from Merriam-Webster) in literalism, adherence to the explicit substance of an idea or expression.

What is it called when you say something but it’s not literal? ›

Figuratively is an adverb of the adjective figurative that means “of the nature of or involving a figure of speech.” It’s typically metaphorical and not literal, which is a key difference in common usage between figuratively and literally.

What makes an image surreal? ›

“Surreal images tend to be dreamlike and tap into people’s unconscious,” says Tryforos. “They’re often made of different elements that are put together in unexpected ways.” Surreal images almost always contain recognizable elements from real life — human figures, clocks, apples — arranged in strange ways.

Is Surrealism still being used today? ›

As a true bridge between the dream world, the unconscious and the political struggle, Surrealism transports us. Today it is celebrated through photography, painting and sculpture, offering us an eccentric and mysterious world.

What was van Gogh’s last words? ›

As he lay on his death bed, having apparently shot himself, Vincent Van Gogh is said to have uttered the final words, “The sadness will last forever“. It’s hard to imagine a bleaker prophecy from the famed and deeply troubled Dutch artist.

Is Frida Kahlo surrealism? ›

Defining Frida Kahlo’s work

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) – born Magdalena Frida Carmen Kahlo y Calderón – is considered to be one of the most important surrealist painters in art history. Surrealism was created in 1924 by the Frenchman André Breton with the publication of his Manifesto of Surrealism.

Is Dr Seuss surrealism? ›

Theodor Geisel was a surrealist, and not just a surrealist, he embodied the spirit of the movement in a way that few artists ever have.


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