It’s the investment that everyone is talking about — but how many of those investors actually know what it is?
Online searches for the definition of bitcoin
tend to spike right before the cryptocurrency’s value peaks and trail off when it drops, according to data from Merriam-Webster.com and Google Trends.
Searches for “bitcoin” started to rise on Nov. 25, 2017 and hit an all-time high the week of Dec. 10, 2017, said Merriam-Webster Inc. spokeswoman Meghan Lunghi. Last week’s searches were down 48% from the December peak.
Those numbers roughly parallel the trajectory of bitcoin’s price, which started a steady climb around Nov. 25, 2017, shot to an all-time high of near $20,000 the week of Dec.10, 2017, and fell to less than half that peak value as of last week, clocking in at about $8,000.
Google Trends tells a similar story. Searches for “what is bitcoin” started surging in late November, hit their all-time high the week of Dec. 3 to Dec. 9, and have fallen off since, dropping last week to one-quarter of their peak.
All told, there’s been a five-fold jump in lookups for “bitcoin” between November 2017 and November 2016 on Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, Lunghi said.
Good news: The searches for bitcoin’s definition don’t necessarily mean investors are clueless about the cryptocurrency, said Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski. “We’re good at reading data, we’re not good at reading minds,” Sokolowski said. “I would never assume to know why a word is being looked up.”
“Curiosity is the opposite of ignorance,” Sokolowski said. “There are a million words that smart people look up. It doesn’t mean they’re ignorant, it means quite the opposite.”
The word bitcoin was first used in 2008 and Merriam-Webster editors added it to the dictionary in early 2016. That’s a very fast timeline, but a typical one for a tech-related word. In the old days lexicographers would sometimes spend decades researching a word before they added it to the dictionary, Sokolowski said. Cryptocurrency was first used in 1990 but didn’t make it to the dictionary until 2017. Blockchain isn’t in Merriam-Webster yet.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary gets 1.25 billion page views a year, and its real-time search data often mirrors terms in the news, from “feminism” to “s***hole.” The latter isn’t in the dictionary yet, but could be soon thanks to the attention it got after President Donald Trump’s comments, Sokolowski said. Princess Diana’s death in 1997 was the first news event that resulted in related lookups, with users searching for “paparazzi,” “cortege” and “princess.”
On Feb. 7, “love” was the fourth most looked-up word, a trend that happens every Valentine’s Day. “The dictionary has become this sort of neutral objective arbiter of the culture,” Sokolowski said.