Revenge of the Word Nerds

When Merriam-Webster tasked Lauren Naturale ’06 with re-energizing the venerable dictionary’s online identity, the former college English professor and freelance writer thought it would be fun. She didn’t imagine that her tweets clarifying the definitions of words like “claque,” “complicit,” and “hombre” during the 2016 presidential campaign season would captivate hundreds of thousands of readers and garner coverage from the likes of NPR, Time, USA Today, and Slate. Turns out that when politicians are trying to make “up” mean “down” and “left” mean “right,” one of the most radical ways truth-defenders can respond is by simply stating the (non-alternative) facts. A few of Lauren’s thoughts on her experiences in the world of words (tweet-brief, naturally):

Revenge of the Word Nerds

“We wanted to democratize the dictionary by saying, ‘We’re going to give you this information, but we also believe that language belongs to everybody.’ I think people really responded to this idea. It was unshackling language from patriarchy, from power structures and class structures.”
“I really like social media. I don’t think it’s an appropriate place to be drafting policy, but we’ve never had a tool like this for bringing people together, especially those with identities that are marginalized in one way or another.”
“With all the panic about ‘fake news,’ I think people freshly realized the benefit of having this reference text that provides a universal consensus of what words mean. That was actually more powerful than if we had started talking about things that were not in our wheelhouse.”
“We need to update our media literacy training in schools. We should be teaching people that in social media, there’s a vested interest in provoking your emotions. Yes, you can get news from social media because it’s faster, but then go read an actual news story.”
“In the wake of the election, I’m starting to see social networks being mobilized in support of local politics. That’s doing a lot to raise awareness of issues and candidates that don’t get a lot of coverage—even in local news, which of course there’s less and less of.”
“A lot of the dictionary’s editorial staff have given their lives to this, and now the people running the world are trying to rewrite the meanings of words and facts. There are some hills we’re willing to die on, and one of them is that words have meaning.”

Web Extra: For 16 politically charged months in 2016 and 2017, Lauren Naturale ’06 was the voice of Merriam-Webster’s highly publicized Twitter account. Here’s a deeper dive into how she did it, the things she learned, and what it was like to make the dictionary cool.

Lauren on…

The politicization (or not) of the dictionary

From the point it became clear Trump was going to be the [Republican] nominee, most of the top [lookup] trends we were seeing had to do with something Trump had said. There wasn’t a way not to report them; it would have been more political not to. We were getting: “What’s the definition of fact?” “What’s the definition of complicit?”—when Ivanka Trump said she doesn’t know what complicit means, but if it means trying to be a good person and make the world a better place, then she’s complicit. But that’s not what complicit means! I don't think people necessarily want editorializing from the dictionary about minimum wage legislation, for example. I have thoughts on the minimum wage. But I think people want to hear from the dictionary about what words actually mean.

Why her tweets got so much love

I think there are a lot of people who really care about words and language who don’t necessarily respond to the way they were taught English in school—or what they were taught language and grammar are all about. The attitude we were trying to express with the Merriam-Webster Twitter feed was: The people here are experts, and it’s their job to know about language. That doesn’t make them morally superior to anybody else. A plumber is probably better at fixing your plumbing than you are. That doesn’t make them a better person. I think people really responded to this idea that language is a lot more inclusive than they might have thought. We have examples of the singular they going back hundreds of years. A lot of people were happy see us call out Trump, let’s be honest. But we were getting attention before that for posting queer-positive tweets about the singular they and non-binary pronouns. It’s kind of crazy that [our approach] worked as well as it did. It gave me hope for the world, like: “Oh, okay. There are a lot of us out there.”

How she developed M-W’s Twitter “voice”

It was an amalgamation. On the one hand, we were publishing articles every day by the lexicographers about words and word usage, and they all have distinct writing voices, so a lot of those voices ended up in the feed. Also, I used to teach college English, and you develop this teacher persona, which is not really you. It’s a little bit like you, but it’s a nicer, more authoritative, depersonalized version of yourself. So it was a combination of that persona plus what all of the other writers were putting out. They’re plenty snarky, too! It’s not just me. It was so much fun. We would get a lot of feedback from commenters, especially in the first year, saying, “Wow, I never thought a dictionary would be so interesting.” Whereas for me, the minute I heard this job advertised, I just thought it sounded like the most fun thing in the entire world. I think that had a lot to do with why it worked out.

The digitization of information

I think dictionaries can be better digitally than they were in print. You can take them with you everywhere, on your phone. You can update them constantly. Old dictionaries would be obsolete by the time they were published. There are incredible possibilities. We still need them. I think all the public attention Merriam has gotten in the past year shows that this is still something people need and want. There’s still a place for people with this deep, deep knowledge of words and decades of expertise. I think it’s exciting that we proved people are still really interested in all of this, even if the dictionary changes its form.

Descriptivism versus prescriptivism

Webster’s Third—the third edition, which came out in the 1960s [1961]—really cemented Merriam-Webster as the descriptivist dictionary. That’s when a lot of people started getting upset: when they bragged about putting ain’t in the dictionary. That outraged a lot of people. “That’s not proper English! That’s not a real word!” Antonin Scalia was actually very opinionated about dictionaries, and the official portrait displayed at his funeral showed him with his hand resting on a copy of Webster’s Second, which was the 1934 dictionary. It was meant as a symbol of Scalia’s conservatism and his commitment to tradition. This is how deep Webster’s Third is as a symbol of new, liberal, progressive ideas. It’s like, “This is where you draw the line.” That’s why the American Heritage dictionary essentially emerged: to become the conservative answer to Webster’s Third. The AP does not use Merriam-Webster as their standard dictionary—I think they use Webster’s New World, which sounds like it should be a Merriam-Webster dictionary, but it’s not; it’s published by someone else. Because there was this idea that Merriam-Webster was the anarchist, progressive, hippie dictionary. Truthfully, every dictionary is a mix of prescriptive and descriptive; there’s no such thing as purely one or the other. It’s more about the ratio. And that is a political stance, to say, “We’re going to remove ourselves from the equation, and instead of telling people how they should talk, we’re going to say this is how people actually talk.” But also, we’re still going to tell you what’s considered “proper” English, or standard English, because that’s what a reference book should do, and one of the things people want from a reference book.

What she thought would happen when she took the M-W job

Not this! I didn’t expect people to start drawing dictionary fan art, either; we got a few pieces. Some were pictures of lexicographers; one of Cthulhu holding Noah Webster’s severed arm—he’s munching on the end of it with the thought bubble, “Mmm, how to describe this taste? If only I had a dictionary!” It got a little out there. I didn’t see that coming. Similarly, we had the first-ever Noah Webster Memorial Pumpkin Carving Contest. We got a lot of entries, and they were all amazing. One day we got retweeted by both RuPaul and Chelsea Clinton. That was fun.

Merriam-Webster’s Words of the Year

A week before I left [in late 2016], everyone was worried that fascism was going to be the Word of the Year—so people started looking up puppies, because they wanted that to be the Word of the Year instead! Eventually we had to publish an article that said, “Neither fascism nor puppies will be the Word of the Year.” Surreal wound up being the Word of the Year for 2016. I’m really curious to see what they pick this year.

Editor’s Note: Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year is chosen through a combination of total lookups and relevance to current events. Announced on December 12, the 2017 Word of the Year was feminism.