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‘We’re descriptivists, not jerks': An interview with Twitter’s edgiest dictionary

A recent viral tweet epitomizes the Merriam-Webster Dictionary on Twitter: educational, current, sassy.

But sassy in the dry, Internet-y way that lives for a good burn or rolls its eyes at any show of enthusiasm. It’s not just an account for word nerds, and it’s not on Twitter just to talk to archives geeks — instead, @MerriamWebster is looking to tap into a deeper conversation, one less about words themselves and more about the power of using them in a sentence.

Take that burn, for example. A dictionary took a swipe Gabriel Roth, editor at Slate, because he had an issue with their language. @MerriamWebster had been tweeting earlier that week about “genderqueer,” and in response, Roth joked that “@MerriamWebster is turning into the ‘chill’ parent who lets you come over and get high.”

Twitter declared it an “iconic drag.” Roth himself mused that “the tweet’s power comes from the way it jars with the identity of its author.” And he’s not wrong, even though no one cares how he feels, because that is exactly why the dictionary’s reply works so well. In taking something as “stuffy” as a dictionary on to Twitter, the land of “iconic drags” and near-constant discussion, @MerriamWebster did something savvy. With every tweet, they’re reminding followers — word nerds and bookworms and beyond — that language is always evolving, on Twitter and off. And that saucy reply to Roth’s tweet is a perfect example of that evolution.

In the midst of other common word look-ups in 2016 — words like “bigly” and “deplorable” and yes, “fascism” — Merriam Webster chose “surreal” as its 2016 Word of the Year. As the dictionary explained on Twitter, “‘Surreal’ is one of the most common lookups following a tragedy.”

And so with more than 13,000 tweets and 180,000-plus followers in its seven years on Twitter, Merriam-Webster Dictionary has crafted an online persona that’s part emoji-fied quirk and part dad-joke droll wit. The voices behind @MerriamWebster tweet everything from words of the day to crowdsourced definitions (with alien emoji faces) to updates on most-searched words — to politics jokes.

In an email interview, Merriam-Webster word nerds Lisa Schneider, Lauren Naturale and Peter Sokolowski answered some questions about the dictionary’s voice on Twitter, everything from the account’s origin story to the changing world of words online. Schneider heads up digital strategy at Merriam-Webster; Sokolowski acts as an “editor at large” and leads editorial projects; and Lauren Naturale manages @MerriamWebster social media.

Answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

On the evolution of @MerriamWebster

Lisa Schneider, chief digital officer & publisher: When M-W first began tweeting, years ago, it was pretty scheduled and staid: a Word of the Day tweet in the morning, and a quiz tweet in the afternoon. When I joined the company, I thought it was a shame that we were not engaging people with our love of language, and the cleverness and humor I experienced in the office every day. I convinced the powers that be to let me build a content and social media team, and clearly they have hit it out of the park.

On the voice now

Lauren Naturale, content & social media manager: The tone of the account reflects the way we actually talk to each other in the office and on Slack: we’re always geeking out about language, and everyone here is really funny. The tweets are filtered through the character of the dictionary, but the voices are real — that’s why people respond.

On that fascism tweet

Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large: First we should note that the “fascism” tweet pertained to the word’s ranking at that particular moment, not the official status for the entire year. The idea of asking people to look up another word was simply part of the fast-moving and quick-witted pattern of Twitter commentaries. It was playing on the concrete notion that if many people look up a word, that word will be noticed and reported by us. And, given what many are describing as a kind of annus horribilis for many different reasons, it was a way of drawing attention to more positive words. Response to the tweet, and subsequent tweets (like our request for people to look up the word “flummadiddle”) — has been very positive. Our Twitter followers appreciate the humor, and the ongoing dialogue the dictionary has with users.

On being ‘cool’

Lauren Naturale: Part of our social media mission is to show the world how funny, timely and relevant the dictionary can be. Social media is about connecting with people and we love that our followers are very engaged — the conversations are usually the best part of Twitter! We’ll tweet something about how the German word for “mansplaining” is “herrklären,” and the next thing you know, a PhD candidate in Iceland is tweeting at us to say that in Icelandic it’s “hrútskýra,” literally “ram explain.” We’re lucky enough to have thousands of very smart, very funny people tweeting at us all the time; of course we’re going to continue those conversations.

On the occasional ‘tweet fail’

Lauren Naturale: Every now and then, we’ll see complaints about one of our definitions on social media, and it won’t always be something that we can change: We’re happy to remove an outdated example sentence, for example, but if we ever change the definition of success, it won’t be because of reader feedback. That’s because our definitions are based on data about how words are actually used, not on how they should be used. So we have to strike a balance between listening to people’s concerns and explaining that, ultimately, the way to change a definition is to propagate your preferred usage and not via petition. Becoming more responsive has really helped with this: now that people know we’re listening, and have seen us make changes based on reader feedback, we have more credibility when the answer is “no, we can’t change the preferred spelling of that word to the variant spelling you’ve been using for most of your life.” We’re descriptivists, not jerks.  

[This post has been updated to include Merriam-Webster’s choice for Word of the Year]

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