To many, a dictionary has likely gone the way of beepers, payphones and writing by hand, but for the folks at Merriam-Webster, they’re just doing what they’ve been doing for the past 186 years.
Today, though, Merriam-Webster is doing something its founders could never have foreseen in 1831: This book of words is winning at social media with hundreds of thousands of followers, on-point GIFs and keeping its finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the world by staying on-brand with what this writer calls “troll teaching.”
When Ivanka Trump told CBS she didn’t know the meaning of “complicit,” Merriam-Webster was right there to school her. And after United Airlines forcibly removed a passenger after it needed volunteers to deplane because of overbooking, Merriam-Webster defined the word “volunteer.”
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But this approach isn’t strategic — it’s an extension of what Merriam-Webster set out to do nearly 200 years ago.
“Our voice is not a marketing construct, it’s who we really are,” Lisa Schneider, chief digital officer and publisher, told Metro.
When Schneider joined Merriam-Webster two years ago, the company’s social media was “very constrained, staid, predictable and not very, well, social,” she said, adding it was the opposite of her in-office experience. “I get to work with the smartest, quickest, funniest ever. I wanted to pull back the curtain and share that voice with the world.”
Now Metro pulls that curtain back even further to see just how Merriam-Webster’s lexicographers are making, err keeping, the dictionary relevant.
How many people work on your social media team?
Lauren Naturale, content and social media manager: I run it, but it reflects the work of many different people. A lot of our tweets are quotes from, or summaries of, articles we publish on the site, so the writers’ voices are all in there, too, as well as the voices of the people I share an office with, who, unsurprisingly, are full of opinions. It’s absolutely a team effort.
What makes the team so special?
Schneider: These are people with incredibly deep, specialized expertise honed over many years, and authentic passion for sharing a love of the English language. I once asked on Slack why “shareful” is not really a word, and in under seven minutes I was presented with a citation from 1887 and a draft definition. (Unfortunately, the word never caught on and it’s still not entered in our dictionary.)
How did you decide to approach breaking and trending news the way you do?
Schneider: What you’re seeing is a data-driven feature we call Trend Watch, which reports on the words people are looking up. While it’s true that the speed and tone of Twitter sometimes makes it easy to consider these posts to be “corrections,” we are merely reporting that some statement or event sent the public to the dictionary, and the lookup data shows that everyone was looking up the same word at the same time. That act of communal interest is what’s really fascinating to us: It means that people care about how language is used. It means that words matter.
How much has your follower base grown since you changed your social media approach?
Naturale: Our followers have grown by well over 400 percent since January 2016, when I started. When I came on, we had about 80,000 Twitter followers; today, we have 430,000. We’ve also seen a spillover effect with our other social media channels — a lot more people follow us on Facebook and Instagram now. But what’s really exciting is how engaged our readers are. If we post something interesting, the next thing that usually happens is that our readers will start adding other funny/brilliant comments in response. We’ve created an actual community around a shared love of language; it’s kind of amazing.
What’s your biggest pet peeve when it comes to word usage?
Schneider: When I was 11 years old, I wrote to William Safire asking him to cover, in his “On Language” column in The New York Times Magazine, my pet peeve: the use of “try and” in place of “try to.” Yes, it still bugs me.
Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large: Language peeves show that we care about language enough to have strong opinions about it — and that’s something to celebrate. So stick to your guns, but let’s also have the good taste to keep our opinions to ourselves in most situations. The real purpose of language is to communicate.
Schneider: Peter’s right. I confessed to my peeve, but I don’t go around correcting people in public.
Of the 1,000 words Merriam-Webster added to the dictionary this year, what’s your favorite? What one made you roll your eyes?
Naturale: Side-eye is great, because we actually found evidence of the word dating all the way back to 1797. And it’s so useful.
Sokolowski: I like macaron and Seussian, but otherwise try not to play favorites!
Schneider: Oh, I can’t pick one! But when cornered in real life, I’ll say prosopagnosia, because it makes people’s eyes widen when I do, and it’s the kind of obscure thing they are looking for me to say.