We are witnessing the Buzzfeedification of the dictionary (…and several other old-school cultural touchstones)


A screenshot of the current front runners in Collins’ “Twictionary” contest. (Collins Dictionary)

Slightly less than 12 hours remain in Collins’ crowdsourced Twitter contest, and the competition for which silly neologism will earn an official dictionary spot is really heating up. Will it be adorkable — “dorky in an adorable way”? Will it be “duckface” — “the traditional pouting facial expression in selfies? Or will it be dsl;dsfkl;dfh — “an expression of mute rage made by pounding one’s fingers on the keyboard,” which I just invented?

Time, and Twitter, will tell. Lately, they always do. That’s because this type of “viral marketing stunt,” if virality can truly be engineered, has become an increasingly popular tool among pre-Internet institutions hellbent on proving their relevance. Just this March, Hasbro earned a wave of press for sponsoring a contest to choose new Scrabble words. (Voters chose “geocache” over “zen,” “ok” and “ew,” casting permanent doubt on the wisdom of the crowd.) Previously, the company had “crowdsourced” Monopoly pieces.

We patiently — even credulously! — endured each new social media-fueled contest. But with #Twictionary, Collins has officially crossed some kind of line. After all, the dictionary is supposed to be a reference. The ultimate arbiter of the English language, compiled by experts. Do we really want that authority outsourced to the whims of social media? The same social media that brought us “geocache”?!

In truth, it doesn’t matter: The contest will only add one word to the dictionary’s tens of thousands, and all the choices have apparently been vetted by editors already. Still, the fact that the vote is totally inconsequential, intended solely to drum up clicks, makes it more annoying — not less. It’s basically linguistic clickbait. We are witnessing the Buzzfeedification of our cultural touchstones … and not merely in the sense that Buzzfeed deploys words like “gaybourhood” all the time.

Don’t get me wrong: The fact that Buzzfeed frequently uses a new word should be a point for dictionary inclusion. Traditionally, dictionary editors (called lexicographers) draw on a huge range of textual sources — including Web sites, blogs and social media — to determine when a word has reached the critical mass to merit an official spot. But votes in some artificial Twitter contest don’t constitute critical mass; they are, to quote University of Leicester English professor Julie Coleman, merely a gimmick intended to generate “Twitter buzz and the associated newspaper coverage,” not “a meaningful sampling of public opinion on new words.”

So Collins’ enthusiasm for the Internet is adorkable … but not particularly infectious. Dsl;dsfkl;dfh.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · May 28