Merriam-Webster: A 200-year-old dictionary offers hot political takes on Twitter

The day White House counselor Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts” in an interview defending President Trump’s former press secretary Sean Spicer, Merriam-Webster, the classic dictionary company, tracked a spike in users turning to its website to look up the definition of the word “fact.”

“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality,” Merriam-Webster’s official Twitter account shared.

“*whispers into the void* In contemporary use, fact is understood to refer to something with actual existence,” it continued. 

The tweets garnered tens of thousands of likes and retweets, with Twitter users surprised that, of all places, shade was being thrown by a nearly 200-year-old dictionary.

{mosads}Highlighting search trends is nothing new for Merriam-Webster’s online team, according to Lisa Schneider, the company’s chief digital officer and publisher. The dictionary has published “Trend Watch” articles online dating back to search spikes in 2010, tracking when people flock to the internet to look up a word at the same time. 

“We can see suddenly that everybody’s looking up the word ‘the,’ for example. And so since people kind of don’t look up the word ‘the’ very often, that stands out to us, and we can see that probably something happened on the national stage, an event or a headline, that enough people saw that raised the question of meaning and sent people to the dictionary,” Schneider said. 

She added that their trending words have always come from a variety of sources, ranging from professional athletes to new songs and other pop culture moments. But under the Trump administration, politics has taken center stage.

“It’s not surprising that in this day and age, a lot of the frequently looked-up words do come from politics, because that’s something people are paying attention to now, and frankly, is contentious now,” Schneider said.

And so Merriam-Webster has built a following out of tracking what people are searching and when they are searching it, reacting to the latest from the president, lawmakers and other Washington figures.

One viral reaction came in March 2017, after Trump repeatedly misspelled the word “hereby” in tweets demanding an investigation into Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) over her alleged “close ties to Russia” after a 2010 meeting with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

In response, the dictionary’s official Twitter account appeared to needle the president, writing “OK, OK. Here. Bye.” and sharing their definition of the term.

That tweet garnered more than 10,000 retweets and more than 25,000 likes. 

The dictionary also weighed in when Spicer refused to define the word “betrayal” to reporters when the White House used the word in a statement announcing that Trump fired former acting Attorney General Sally Yates.

Yates refused to have the Justice Department defend Trump’s executive order blocking people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. 

“Lookups for ‘betrayal’ spiked after Sean Spicer said ‘I’m not going to define the word.’ We defined the word,” Merriam-Webster sassily shared on their Twitter feed, to thousands more likes and retweets.

Tweets have ranged well beyond trolling political figures.

The day before the 2016 presidential election, Merriam-Webster changed its Twitter header photo to the definition of the word “Götterdämmerung,” or “a collapse (as of a society or regime) marked by catastrophic violence and disorder.”

Schneider and Adam Maid, Merriam-Webster’s social media and content manager, said the image wasn’t meant to be partisan. Instead, they wanted to reflect what words could convey how people were talking about the election online.

“This was tied to the fact that people on both sides felt like this was a really sort of momentous time and everybody was talking about this in terms that were fairly existential,” Schneider said.

In fact, none of their posts are intended to be partisan “corrections” lobbed at elected officials or public figures of one party, according to Schneider. For example, they published a trend watch poking fun at then-Vice President Joe Biden’s frequent use of the word “malarkey” during the Obama administration.

However, that doesn’t stop some people from accusing their team of taking sides instead of only highlighting “lookup data,” Schneider said.

“We try to be very careful, and so sometimes people will say ‘hey, there you go again,’ right? As the dictionary, our role is to be objective, and that’s why we really use lookup data as our platform because we don’t make people look up words. We don’t choose the words that people look up. This is what people are talking about, and this is what people are thinking about,” Schneider said.  

Instead, Maid said their team jokes about political figures and their word choices online in order to “meet people on their own level,” bringing together politics and wordplay online.

“I like to think that even though we are an almost 200-year-old company, we don’t need to sound like it,” Maid said.

And meeting people online has paid off, with fans calling for the dictionary to comment on any weird word politicians might use and laughing alongside the company. 

“Can someone please wake up the @MerriamWebster social media person? It’s urgent. #covfefe,” one woman wrote after Trump accidentally shared the now-viral tweet “Despite the constant negative press covfefe.”

“@MerriamWebster’s social media team is fabulous,” another Twitter user shared.

Schneider added that Merriam-Webster’s success online is less about adding to the bevy of voices parodying politicians on Twitter and more about tapping into the language public figures use as “something that people really care about and become engaged in.”

“We think that it shows that words matter,” Schneider said. “People care about meaning and pay attention to words.”

Tags Donald Trump Joe Biden Kellyanne Conway Merriam-Webster Nancy Pelosi Sally Yates Sean Spicer Twitter

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