In one of his first tweets as president, Trump wrote he was “honered” to serve the country — a gaffe that sent searches for “honor” and “honer” surging thousands of percentage points over the previous week.
After the president accused Barack Obama of placing a “tapp” on his phones, searches for that word on the website spiked 46,000 percent.
Trump’s homophone mix-ups — using “council” instead of “counsel” or “heel” instead of “heal” — have also sent searches spiking.
Even the president’s trademark diminutives, like the one he used for “liddle” Bob Corker — once his preferred epithet for Sen. Marco Rubio during the primaries — have shown up.
These searches are one example of how dictionaries with online search functions, such as Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster, have become an increasingly visible presence in the digital age as they are better able to track what people are searching for and publicize the results on social media. And they reflect how the Trump era and the rapid-fire news cycles it has inspired impact the massive flow of information every day online.
“People love telling other people that they are wrong on the Internet,” said Jane Solomon, a lexicographer at Dictionary.com. “And a dictionary can help you figure that out. Dictionaries are often used to settle debates.”
Lexicographers say that kind of fact-checking is just one of the many unpresidented, err … unprecedented ways that Trump’s presidency has boosted usage of dictionaries.
“You’re seeing a lot more engagement online with dictionaries. That’s very unusual — it’s not the SAT vocabulary words they’re looking up. They’re really tracking with the news in a really granular way,” said Kory Stamper, an author and, until two weeks ago, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster. “It’s not just typos. It’s things like fact. People looked up ‘fact’ like mad last year to try and see if such a thing like an ‘alternative fact’ could exist. And you’re seeing people look up words like ‘collusion.’ Sometimes it’s because people don’t know what it means or also because it could be a word that Trump uses constantly.”
The social media managers of many dictionaries have happily played along, sharing the definition of words as subtweets — not-so-subtle nods meant to comment on current events.
In a world where objectivity is increasingly contested, dictionaries remain a trusted, neutral source of facts, used to glean the meaning of unknown words and confirm that words are used properly.
Stamper said the fact that searches spiked around Trump’s misspellings was a sign that people were looking up the words to confirm that they were wrong.
“You can tell when people look them up that they know that there’s something not quite right there,” she said. “People complain that nobody knows how to spell since the advent of spell check, but the fact that they spike indicates that there are a lot of people who know the difference between the different councils, for example.”
Many of the president’s verbal tics and phrases have become embedded in our culture — “sad!” — and in the larger sphere of global politics around the world, where officials, including some accused of significant atrocities, have cried “fake news” to try to defang reporting they don’t like.
Lauren Sliter, a spokeswoman for Dictionary.com, said she felt that Trump’s errors, however trivial they seemed, probably did have an effect on the national discourse.
“I do think it signals to some people that maybe we don’t need to be as careful [in] the ways we communicate in a public forum,” she said.
Data was not immediately available for Trump gaffes such as “hearby,” “Barrack” Obama, “payed,” and “enormously consensual presidency.”
But Stamper said she wasn’t worried about any damage to the English language inflicted by the misspellings and typos, as high-profile as they are.
“He does have a big microphone, but he is also just one man,” she said. “And the great thing about English is that it is a truly democratic institution — everyone who uses it has a say in where it goes. It is going to take much more than Donald Trump to add an extra p to tap.”