I’m hooked. Merriam-Webster is the coolest thing on social media. In these dark times, where clickbait generally leads down a long tunnel into dystopia, the Twitter resurgence of a venerable dictionary is something to, well, tweet about.
First, there’s M-W’s political savvy. As NPR and other media organizations have observed, the nerdy group in Springfield, Mass., has been having a field day with the malapropisms of the current administration. Just last week, after the president spent part of his news conference vigorously denying reports of improper contact between his staff and the Russians, M-W saw fit to remind us all that a ruse is “a stratagem or trick usually intended to deceive.” When Kellyanne Conway introduced the term alternative facts into the discussion, M-W immediately tweeted the definition of a fact: “a piece of information presented as having objective reality” (though, to twist the knife, it later presented an alternative definition of the word). When news surfaced of the president’s having brought paid staff to applaud him during his speech at the CIA, M-W helpfully tweeted the correct term: “If you’re part of a group that’s paid to applaud, you’re a ‘claqueur.’” M-W has proposed a Word of the Day for awhile now, but saw fit to note, on December 16, “Good morning! The #WordOfTheDay is ... not ‘unpresidented.’ We don’t enter that word. That’s a new one.” Recently, M-W saw fit to supply us all with 10 words from Russian — just in case, you know, we may all have to learn that language anytime soon. Plus, they reintroduced the once-archaic term snollygoster, meaning “a shrewd, unprincipled person, especially a politician.” Now I know what to call the robo-recipient of all those calls I’ve been making to members of Congress.
And simply following M-W’s “Trend Watch” — which noted, for instance, the spike in lookups of the term anti-Semitism following last week’s presser question about the rise in hate crimes since the election — pokes advertent or inadvertent fun at what’s happening in Trumpland. Words selected for their trending qualities recently included immigrant, tergiversation, and dossier. When someone tweeted, in response to a news article on the president’s spelling issues, that “@MerriamWebster is the real winner here,” M-W soberly declared, “We take no joy in this.” Ultimately, like most who have resorted to satire or mockery of the gaffes that keep on giving, I’m sure they would prefer to applaud their president than to snicker at him, but I can’t deny that the chuckles they provide are good for my mental health these days.
But that’s not the only reason to fall newly in love with the fellows inside the red circle. There’s also their feverish hunger for words. Recently, in a single week, they added 1,000 new words to their online dictionary, which thankfully we no longer have to lug around with us. Words like photobomb, face-palm, and the newest, hippest meaning of the word shade. There’s the Word of the Day podcast, where you may think you know the meaning of, say, cachet, but the delightful person reading its origins and meaning to you will enlighten you nonetheless. And you get words like sward and transpontine that you’re certain you knew in some former lifetime and are happy to meet again.
I live in the town that was Noah Webster’s birthplace, so perhaps we’re already a little dictionary-happy here. A huge statue of him fronts the downtown Noah Webster branch of the library, and the latest, hippest development in town is called Blue Back Square, in honor of the little blue-back spellers that Webster first published in 1783. Less is known about Charles and George Merriam, whose publishing firm bought the rights to Webster’s dictionary after Webster’s death in 1843, but recent visitors to the company’s Twitter feed have agreed that Merriam makes a delightful baby name.
Finally, I’m loving Merriam-Webster because of the humbling effect of its weekly New Words quiz. People who write and read Lingua Franca go into such tests fairly sure we’ll ace the thing. Not so! I was lucky to get six out of 12 this week, and that was due to a couple of very lucky guesses. There are other games as well, little three-minute diversions that can make us forget the Orwellian state of language at this moment. It’s surely true, as the Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski has said, that “people are seeking kind of objective truths and maybe researched and trustworthy sources and to that extent, it’s gratifying that people are turning to the dictionary because that’s essentially what we’ve always done.” But they’re doing it in surprising, innovative ways that remind me how playful — how joyful, really — words can be.