NEW YORK — Free and great, or divided and confused. Diverse and powerful, or troubled and broken. In search of a single word encapsulating their country at this moment, Americans offered pollsters a lexicon reflecting both hope and dissonance.
The most-uttered word from about 1,000 responses to the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey was “freedom,” with “free” not far behind at No. 4. “Great” took second place — and “good,” “powerful,” “wonderful” and “awesome” also occupied the top tier. But crowding the list were entries mirroring national angst.
“Divided” ranked third, and “confused” and “troubled” tied for fifth, amassed alongside other words of distress: “broken,” “lost,” and more bluntly, “screwed.”
Pollsters say grouping people’s answers together with synonyms and related words is a better reflection of public sentiment. Viewed that way, “struggling,” “declining” and their synonyms accounted for the biggest chunk of words, from about one-fifth of answers. Some 18 percent of respondents offered words related to American greatness, prosperity and power, which collectively ranked second, followed by those linked to freedom (15 percent), and “confused,” “lost” and similar choices (10 percent).
Positive and negative words were almost evenly split.
“When you see words like ‘freedom’ and ‘divided’ together, you get a good little portrait of what people are thinking,” said Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster, the dictionary publisher. “You can’t get more balanced than that.”
Republicans used “struggling,” “declining” and similar terms more than Democrats (27 percent versus 15 percent). Those without college degrees were also likelier to do so.
Bobby Underwood, a 67-year-old retired carpet mill worker in Dalton, Georgia, chose “troubled” when challenged to describe his country. With killings of police officers, Islamic State group attacks, a divisive election and concerns about the economy and illegal immigration, Underwood said he was left with an unhappy word in his mind.
“Troubled,” he said. “That pretty much sums it up for me.”
More than 350 individual words flowed into the poll released this week — from “bossy,” “boring,” “bountiful” and “bigoted” to “eclectic,” “enthusiastic” and “equal.” Also: “paradise,” “perplexing,” and a few cases of profanity. They pointed to high ideals — “democracy,” “opportunity,” “liberty” — and dire assessments — “greedy,” “racist,” and “doomed.” Some screamed in all capital letters: “UNITED” and “TERRIFIED.” Others used punctuation for added effect — “disaster!!” and “great!”
Jack Blanton of Lexington, Kentucky, thought of his 81 years in weighing his answer. He grew up in a rural town in the Appalachian foothills, working on his grandparents’ tobacco farm and later in a steel mill. He moved around the country and saw the world, earned a Ph.D., and rose to become a university vice president.
He wondered what other country could give a farm boy such a life, and concluded America’s best days are ahead. He decided on “great.”
“Who wouldn’t be optimistic?” he asked. “My whole life has been blessed.”
Online: AP-NORC Center: http://www.apnorc.org/