CNN

Dictionary.com’s word of the year is a common one, but it doesn’t mean what you think

Dec 12, 2023, 2:46 PM

Dictionary.com's word of the year is "hallucinate," referring to the tendency of artificial intelli...

Dictionary.com's word of the year is "hallucinate," referring to the tendency of artificial intelligence tools to spew misinformation. (Austin Steele, CNN)

(Austin Steele, CNN)

(CNN) — “Hallucinate” is Dictionary.com’s word of the year — and no, you’re not imagining things.

The online reference site said in an announcement Tuesday that this year’s pick refers to a specific definition of the term pertaining to artificial intelligence: “to produce false information contrary to the intent of the user and present it as if true and factual.” In other words, it’s when chatbots and other AI tools confidently make stuff up.

Grant Barrett, head of lexicography at Dictionary.com, told CNN this particular definition of “hallucinate” was added to the site earlier this year, though its use in computer science dates at least as far back as 1971. As staff at the online dictionary considered contenders for the defining words of 2023, Barrett said it became clear that AI was increasingly changing our lives, working its way into our language as well.

Hallucinate

“When we looked at the different words associated with artificial intelligence, we saw that ‘hallucinate’ really encapsulated this notion that AI wasn’t exactly what we as a culture wanted it to be,” Barrett said.

Barrett and Dictionary.com senior editor Nick Norlen wrote in a blog post that the site saw a 46% increase in lookups for “hallucinate” over the previous year, while its use in digital publications increased 85% year-over-year. The online reference also reported an average 62% increase in year-over-year lookups for other AI-related terminology, such as “chatbot,” “GPT” and “generative AI.”

Indeed, 2023 was a major year for AI — from impressive developments in the technology to contentious debates about its promises and pitfalls.

Since the launch of ChatGPT last year, people have used AI-powered tools to write essays, research papers, legal briefs and emails, with varying results. But as some in the tech world point to AI’s potential for productivity, others across sectors are concerned it could eliminate millions of jobs, reinforce racist and sexist biases and sow misinformation. The use of AI in the film and television industries was one of the issues at the heart of the Hollywood writers’ strike earlier this year, and leaders in the US and Europe are already pushing for regulations around the technology.

While the word “hallucinate” as it pertains to AI becomes more mainstream, some AI researchers criticize its use in this context. As CNN’s Catherine Thorbecke reported in August, some experts argue that the term anthropomorphizes AI, ascribing ill intent to language learning models that are actually trained on datasets influenced by humans.

Word of the year isn’t going away

But as the lexicographers at Dictionary.com see it, the word is here to stay.

“Our choice of hallucinate as the 2023 Word of the Year represents our confident projection that AI will prove to be one of the most consequential developments of our lifetime,” Norlen and Barrett wrote in the blog post.

“Data and lexicographical considerations aside, hallucinate seems fitting for a time in history in which new technologies can feel like the stuff of dreams or fiction —especially when they produce fictions of their own.”

Merriam-Webster, which recently announced “authentic” as its 2023 word of the year, also cited the rise of AI in its selection. The term saw a substantial increase in lookups thanks to “stories and conversations about AI, celebrity culture, identity, and social media,” the online dictionary said.

Other words that made Dictionary.com’s word of the year shortlist were indicted, rizzstrike, wildfire and wokeism.

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Dictionary.com’s word of the year is a common one, but it doesn’t mean what you think