The primary definition for “dog whistle” remains a way to call a dog, but the term now has a secondary entry meaning “an expression or statement that has a secondary meaning intended to be understood only by a particular group of people,” according to the dictionary.
An entirely new entry was created for “alt-right,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “a right-wing, primarily online political movement or grouping based in the U.S. whose members reject mainstream conservative politics and espouse extremist beliefs and policies typically centered on ideas of white nationalism.”
The number of new entries related to politics wasn’t significantly greater than in past expansions, said Emily Brewster, an associate editor for the dictionary.
“I think that the public discourse these days is so politically focused that maybe they just stick out to us all the more,” she said.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that most of the new words have actually been lingering in the public consciousness for a while, Brewster added.
“We are not the first place that you’re going to hear of a word,” she said. “As always, the dictionary is always the lag indicator.”
Rather, a team of editors is constantly monitoring potential new entries in a spreadsheet. When a new word — or a burgeoning new definition of an existing word — seems like it has finally settled into the public discourse, Merriam-Webster editors make the case for it to be formally defined and added to the dictionary.
For instance, Brewster said she has been paying special attention to the word “troll” ever since she handled “a big revision of the term” in 2014. That year, Merriam-Webster added a secondary definition to reflect the word’s increasing reference to an antagonizing person on the Internet (especially one who keeps “posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content”).
However, Brewster said she had already begun noticing the word was being applied not just online but to certain behaviors in real life.
“I remember being really struck by an article in the New York Times,” she said, about a pair of rich siblings in the city. She also recalled the ensuing response to that article. ” ‘Is the New York Times just trolling us? Is it just trying to get us all really annoyed and unsettled?’ It’s a really distinct use from what we consider the more traditional Internet troll.”
Brewster made a note of the term’s migration offline. Sure enough, on Monday, a new definition appeared for “troll” to apply to the kind of disparaging behavior that happens in real life.
“I feel like once it took off, it really took off in such a way that it seemed like it was absolutely everywhere,” Brewster said. The word’s primary definition remains “a dwarf or giant in Scandinavian folklore inhabiting caves or hills.”
“Word salad,” which was already defined as unintelligible speech related to a mental disorder, received a new secondary definition because of its now-frequent use in political spheres.
True to form, Merriam-Webster’s popular Twitter account announced several of its new entries with corresponding tweets. With “word salad,” it included a GIF of the actress Melissa McCarthy at the Emmy Awards, appearing bemused while former White House press secretary Sean Spicer made a cameo.
Was the dictionary, well, trolling Spicer’s infamous head-scratching news conferences? You decide.