OAKLAND, California: In the age of social media and a tweet-happy president, online dictionaries aren't just sitting back and waiting for people to look up words.
Dictionary.com is pointing out connotations of the words President Donald Trump uses, correcting his misspellings and calling out other famous people in the news. The East Bay company's online posts – especially on Twitter and Facebook – have raised its profile, ensuring the president doesn't always get the last word on controversial matters and offering citizens more context.
“It's a great time to be a dictionary,” said Liz McMillan, CEO of Dictionary.com, at the company's downtown Oakland headquarters.
“Our mission is to eliminate anxiety with the English language,” she said. “People were grappling with the words they were hearing in the world around them. I think that became especially heightened in the 2016 elections.”
Lookups of particular words spiked during the presidential debates, she said.
Now, Trump is president. He keeps the news media busy, that's for sure. Dictionaries? Same.
When Trump expressed admiration recently for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's hold over his country's people, Dictionary.com was quick to define “authoritarian”.
“Authoritarian: A leader who exercises complete or almost complete control over the will of others,” the dictionary tweeted. “Also authoritarian: A political system in which individual freedom is held as completely subordinate to the power or authority of the state.”
By addressing Trump's use of words, the two major US dictionaries – Dictionary.com and Massachusetts-based Merriam-Webster – might be viewed as unnecessarily partisan.
But Dictionary.com says it's simply responding to the public's searches and responses. It's also – not incidentally – drawing audience to its advertising-supported site in an era where almost no one spends money to buy a printed dictionary.
In one example of how the company responded, the president repeatedly refers to Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas”. Dictionary.com explored that issue recently, pointing out that it has prompted complaints from the National Congress for American Indians, the Native American Journalists Association and the Alliance for Colonial Era Tribes, who complain that Trump's use of the name is a slur.
The dictionary noted that lookups for “Pocahontas” spiked on separate occasions after Trump used it: One day in November 2017, when White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied that the president's use of the term was a slur, lookups skyrocketed 20,733%.
Merriam-Webster also does its share of tweaking the Trump administration. When Sanders defended the treatment of immigrants at the border last week, the dictionary tweeted: “'Due process' is trending after the Press Secretary implied that people removed without a hearing have received it.” The dictionary linked to a short article on its site that defined the term as “a course of formal proceedings (as judicial proceedings) carried out regularly, fairly, and in accordance with established rules and principles”.
“I don't think there's anything particularly partisan about what Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster are doing,” said Geoffrey Nunberg, a UC Berkeley linguist and former chair of the American Heritage Dictionary usage panel. If they're “trolling” Trump, “they're trolling him with the truth,” Nunberg added.
Dictionary.com has come a long way from 2014, when its giant blue-and-white word wall went up inside its headquarters, complete with sayings such as, “Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula,” by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Back then, the company tended to focus more on inspirational quotes.
Now, McMillan said Dictionary.com is finding opportunities to also weigh in on pop culture, sports and entertainment.
Earlier this year, NBA Rookie of the Year finalist Donovan Mitchell, who was competing with Ben Simmons for the honor, wore a sweatshirt with Dictionary.com's definition of “rookie” – “an athlete playing his or her first season as a member of a professional sports team” – plastered on it. That's because Simmons sat out his first year with an injury, and this was actually his second year with the Philadelphia 76ers.
When Simmons won the award, Dictionary.com gave a shout out to the Utah Jazz player Mitchell's reaction by trotting out its definition of “sportsmanship”.
“Sportsmanship. Noun. Sportsmanlike conduct, as fairness, courtesy, being a cheerful loser, etc,” the dictionary tweeted. “See also: Donovan Mitchell at the #NBAAwards #ROTY.”
Why is a dictionary business wading into the murky waters of possibly controversial word matters on social media, anyway?
“Words we choose to use can tell a lot about us,” said Lauren Sliter, senior manager for marketing and content strategy at Dictionary.com. “We really needed to meet people where they were in the world. Twitter is a really great place for that. It's so timely, and so fast-paced and there are so many eyeballs there.”
Dictionaries and politics go way back. A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, is considered the first preeminent English dictionary.
“Johnson's dictionary was considered prescriptive; it told people how to correctly use words,” said Ryan Skinnell, an assistant professor of rhetoric at San Jose State University who wrote a book titled Faking the News: What Rhetoric Can Teach Us About Donald J. Trump.
“It was a single-author dictionary,” Jane Solomon, a lexicographer for Dictionary.com, said about the same dictionary. “Johnson editorialised his definitions.”
Dictionary.com, which has 10 lexicographers who define words, says it does not intend to editorialise its definitions. “We do our best to make sure our entries are unbiased, but humans are humans,” Solomon said. “I support people who are trans, so my definition would be different from someone who comes from a different place.”
But as you might guess during these politically charged times, and considering its social media quips get a ton of engagement, Dictionary.com does get some pushback.
“I've been watching the (dictionaries) for a good year,” Skinnell said. “They're hilarious and biting, and they get retweeted 40,000 times.”
It has become high-profile, but Dictionary.com, a unit of the media conglomerate IAC, is not above apologising and making changes. The people behind the dictionary – it has fewer than 50 employees, including the lexicographers, engineers, editors and data analysts – talk about each of the complaints they receive.
“Is this complaint valid?” Sliter said. “Are we serving our core purpose, which is to showcase language as it's truly used in the world?”
The company is thriving, according to its CEO. The Wall Street Journal reported in March that the dictionary business was offered for sale, but the company wouldn't confirm that.
Dictionary.com claims 70 million monthly active users to Merriam-Webster's nearly 60 million. Numbers from comScore show that Dictionary.com beat Merriam-Webster's online traffic every month in the United States from May 2017 to May 2018.
“We have exceeded everyone's expectations,” McMillan said.
The company's success may be partly due to the fact that there are more chances to be misunderstood in the world of smartphones and the Internet, as we mostly engage in text-based communication, McMillan said. “And it's permanent,” she added. “(People are) publishers ... What we've seen as a result of that is our thesaurus product is growing. People want to choose the right words.”
Some of them want to choose the right curse words. Fun fact: Lookups for curse words spike during the holidays, especially during Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“I think cooking a turkey is curse-worthy,” McMillan said. She laughed and said she's having the time of her career.
“I got a C- in high school English,” McMillan, a long-time IAC executive, said. “Now I'm running a dictionary.” — The San Jose Mercury News/Tribune News Service