Getting to Know New York as a Freelance Demographer

by Lisa Guis

I have been in NYC for two years, and I’ve realized I can meander until my feet are blistered and sore, and still know relatively little about New Yorkers. I wanted to get to know some different neighborhoods using my own metric. The app on my phone comes with a weird feature that I thought had a lot of potential: you can see a list of words people near you have looked up with the app recently. I would become a demographer, though lacking the de rigueur education and credibility and all that.

I went to around 20 NYC hoods (mostly Brooklyn). Not only did give me an excuse for my generally aimless wandering (“Sorry, I can’t cover your shift, I have to do academic research”), but I could get a glimpse into the conversations people were having. Here they are.

Flatiron, Sunday, 4 p.m.

Forthcoming, dissertation, incite, ervine, monotonous, quandary, inaut, prolific, metanoia, japing, reinvigorated, swive, conspicuous, arf, crawfish, incredible, bugged, muon, montage, slew, enamored, brusque, sluice

Favorite: swive (it is old fashioned for have sex! Who knew?).

Least favorite: inaut (as far as I know this is not a word, but rather half of ‘inauthentic’).

I’d say it’s about half words I am sure I could properly use in a sentence, one fourth words I wouldn’t feel comfortable using (metanoia? muon?), and the other fourth things that maybe kids were looking up. It feels like Flatiron feels to me; a place you go for work, but none of these people lives here, you know? They just overheard someone else say quandary and wanted to make sure they knew what it meant before they got caught using it wrong later.


Clinton Hill, Sunday, 7:30 p.m.

Toilet, bedlam, shaitan, exponential, spent, college, lechery, ebullition, novel, gentile, fathom, idiosyncrasy, parity, special, raging, adulated, inevitable, effeminate, obsequious, third, beam, ineffable, apparition

Favorite: bedlam. I know what it means, it’s just a good word.

Least favorite: toilet, third, beam, college, spent.

It’s a shame that this is my neighborhood because I totally love it, but I’m not that excited by this list. I’m creeping hard on the map though. I think a neighbor looked up adulated! Maybe they’re planning to adulate me later.


Fort Greene, Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

Bootlicking, depression, illude, allude, transcend, latter, gem, fixed, deacon, air, engineer, osteopathy, hero, savior, upended.

Favorite: Tough to pick one because they are all kind of blah. Bootlicking, I guess, because I looked it up when I was doing this one and it was defined as “to go beyond the ordinary limits of,” which surprised me.

Least favorite: air (though they might have meant putting on airs and strutting like a peacock, like Golde would if Tevye were a rich man).

I think illude and allude were looked up by the same person. Ditto deacon, hero, and savior.


Bushwick, Sunday, 3:30 p.m.

Frwy, quaco, photon, scrounge, sallow, phenomenology, gait, Cimmerian, rogue, compound

Favorite: Cimmerian.

Least favorite: frwy.

Quaco? The heck is quaco? It appears to be some Canadian museum or something, and a male name for Wednesday. Wait! I know a guy named Kweku (Canadian, too!) who once told me his name had something to do with the day he was born on. I get the feeling from words like compound and photon that someone might have been doing science.


Bed-Stuy, Sunday, 3:30 p.m.

Cloot, else, requited, slogan, kino, welcome, kakapo, proximity, learnt, masonry, linguistic, lier, muni, copse, moat, nadir, naïve, tokamak, root, Cimmerian, quay, chaff

Favorite: I have a soft spot for the word nadir, and I don’t know why and I’m sorry.

Least favorite: welcome.

Second appearance for Cimmerian! A week later, too. I think we’ve found our first citywide trend, and it’s 7th century BC Asia Minor. I find the words here interesting. Root and default seem weak, but maybe they are defensible because they are noun/verbs. This list is sort of enigmatic, right? I dig. And I live technically there; I was lying about Clinton Hill, so I’m proud.


Union Square, Wednesday, 4:30 p.m.

Dinosaur, exacerbate, synthetic, flyover, premises, retrieved, immersion, dissertation, lucrative, buy, pet peeves, miscreant, quan, appease, rolodex

Favorite: rolodex.

Least favorite: also rolodex.

Quan is not a word, so I wonder what was happening there. Otherwise, all these words are solid and useful, though flyover I would have treated as two words, so I learned something. I wonder why someone looked up dinosaur. Sometimes I find myself wishing I’d been in the conversation that led to these words being looked up, and I feel like I’m due for a conversation about dinosaurs.


West Village, Wednesday, 5 p.m.

Cleanly, fastidious, articulate, drummer, affable, tousle, doover, then, horned pout, toothsome, perquisite, catatonia, length between perpendiculars, libation, hist

Favorite: length between perpendiculars because I know all the words in it but I am intrigued by a person who turned to the dictionary with such an inquiry.

Least favorite: doover.

West Village is reliable; it’s pleasant, but living there would be sort of crazy because of the streets being so winding! Also, horned pout? This appears to be fish talk.


TriBeCa, Tuesday, 4:30 p.m.

Narcolepsy, selling, potential, estate, solidarity, ombudsman, admonish, caveat, FedEx, cut ones wolf loose, obversion, sanctimonious, onomatopoeia

Favorite: cut ones wolf loose?

Least favorite: selling.

This list has a lot of words that feel good to say, like admonish and narcolepsy and sanctimonious. Say them. I think TriBeCa would get 1000 points on SAT Verbal (I have no idea how they score the SAT). Then there is FedEx. What is FedEx doing here?


Park Slope, Saturday, 2 p.m.

This one was pretty sparse. Only about 5 words showed up. Maybe they were all at the park or having stoop sales or something; it was a really nice day. Okay, want a taste? Diarrhea, stoner, cuddlier.


Cobble Hill, Saturday, 4 p.m.

Ork orks, viceroy, sj, demeanor, score, thaw, paradox, ample, macabre, bluster, craal, enacted, pettifog, arctic

Favorite: macabre.

Least favorite: sj.

What the heck is ork orks? Is ork orks like Orcs? Because if it is then probably I want to hang out with that guy because I love LOTR.


Williamsburg, Sunday, 4:30 p.m.

Undergirding, laryngitis, indolence, beau, conspicuous, moll flanders, spire, rake, hagiography, malodorous, gallimaufry, valiant, urbane (yeah in the Burg I know), deface, devise, dirge, innate, dearth, mixed numbers

Favorite: gallimaufry! I try so hard to remember to use this word but I fail. I am also afraid to pronounce it.

Least favorite: deface.

As much as I kind of hate to pat the ‘Burg on the back, when I tend to assume it pats itself on the back regularly, that is a good list. It’s not that the list lacks words we all should know, but the low-end words on that list are better than some of the toppers of other lists. You even have a math one in there. I’m just saying, if Brooklyn had to send an ambassador neighborhood to space aliens, if we went with the ‘Burg, the aliens would think we are all well spoken.


Long Island City, Friday, 8 p.m.

Conduit, futile, sloop, dispense, question, phater, harlequin, belian pass, caracul, proliferation, gather, mucosa, martinet, oeuvre, capote, tholus

Favorite: tholus.

Least favorite: question.

Not bad, LIC. Maybe the person who looked up harlequin also looked up capote because they were reading a romance novel where a man wore a capote. Did you know that’s a coat? Because I did not! And just told me that phater is any person who hates platypuses, which is kind of funny. I bet the person who looked it up also wrote that definition!


Gowanus, Saturday, 5 p.m.

Contrition, seize, commodity, frigate, token, squint, fastidious, gam, pragmatic, doubter, retrofire, innocuous, advanced, hoochinoo

Favorite: fastidious.

Least favorite: squint.

Sort of a short list here, but hoochinoo is intriguing.


This exercise really makes you think about how many words have multiple meanings. There are times when you think you’ve judged a curious user of the English language and smartphones to be silly, but you have to think twice. When someone looked up rake I was all, “rake? Duh.” Then I thought, “wait, rake, like a lecherous, wealthy guy.” I could have found this person and asked, because I had the map, but I got scared that he would be a rake and womanize me.

Lisa Guis lives in Brooklyn. She has been cutting her own hair and regretting it for three years.