Finite Data, Infinite Interpretation: When did a word fragment become a word?

As I start the Vencore Health Blog off for 2016, I find myself looking back and thinking ahead.

I both detest and love that Merriam-Webster's 2015 Word of the Year was not actually a word this year. It was a suffix. They noted that many of their high-ranking words ended in –ism, and so they chose a word fragment as a word. The grammar-freak-type A part of my personality rails against this, and the understanding-a-broader-context-for-finite-data part of me is attracted to the idea. The top –ism words on the list were socialism, fascism, terrorism, racism, feminism, communism, and capitalism. Merriam-Webster notes that “these words reveal our curiosity and our engagement… a definition can be the beginning of reflection.”

At Vencore Health, a definition is the beginning of our reflection. In our case we spend a seemingly disproportionate time on building our patient definition. We start with what the medical community knows about a disease, and then we add our data-mining spin onto it. From there we apply super-fancy analytics (yes, that is the technical term) and modify the definition again. We dialogue with clients and consult with experts before we move on from the “definition building” phase of the project. It is always an iterative process and requires a great deal of reflection. 

(For those of you who are Vencore neophytes, let me offer you a wealth of info on our website, and the quick tantalizing tidbit that we use sophisticated analytics to find patients with rare disease before they are diagnosed.)

I realize, of course, that Merriam-Webster was not thinking of data or analytics when it wrote that “a definition can be the beginning of a reflection.” But it is interesting to note that it was data that drove the selection of -ism. Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year is determined using two criteria: the words show (1) a high volume of searches at and (2) a significant increase compared to the previous year.

As I scanned for more info about the word of the year, I came across PRNewswire’s end-of-year commentary on the choice. What struck me most was that after the understandable comment that the most-searched words “shed light on topics and ideas that sparked the nation’s interest in 2015,” they followed with “What’s even more interesting is that data can surprise you!”.

I have only been working in healthcare analytics for about a year and a half now, but there is one thing that doesn’t surprise me anymore: there are ALWAYS surprises when data are analyzed appropriately. If there aren’t, I worry that we have biased the results, or that we don’t understand the results.

So cheers to Merriam-Webster for an intriguing choice. They blended the concrete data-driven “top-ten” list with a relevant interpretation. We try to do that at Vencore every day.

p.s. The thinking ahead part of my musings these days generally falls to just how much work awaits us in 2016. That is a good thing, to be sure, but we must plan. Another word close to the top of 2016 Merriam-Webster searches could help us enormously (without the evil master part): “minion.”

Tara Grabowsky, MD
Chief Medical Officer, Vencore