A Brief History of Dictionaries Dominating People on Twitter

Donald Trump
The Trump administration and words don't get along very well. Reuters

In the Fake News Era, there is no cesspool of dubious information more fetid than Twitter.com. A typical user of the site is at least slightly insane, the president of the United States has tweeted more inaccuracies than one can count, and even news organizations aren't above suspicion of bias. Where are we to turn, then, for a truly impartial source? One that we can be certain has no ulterior motive? The answer used to be the dictionary—the most boring, unbiased compendium of knowledge ever assembled. Until the dictionary signed up for Twitter.

Related: United Airlines has man dragged from overbooked flight

A recent example of the dictionary's Twitter valiance came in the wake of this week's United Airlines debacle. On Sunday, the airline forcefully removed a 69-year-old doctor from one of its planes, busting his lip up in the process. They proceeded to bungle their response to the backlash in just about every way imaginable, including tweeting that when they "looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave."

Merriam-Webster wasn't having it.

📈'Volunteer' means “someone who does something without being forced to do it.” https://t.co/qNAcMyplhZ

— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) April 11, 2017

This is called "getting owned," which is especially embarrassing when it's done by the digital version of a 1,000-page book of word definitions. On the surface, this is a lighthearted way for a dictionary company to engage with an audience of social media users, but the utility of Merriam-Webster responding to United's tweet isn't so superficial. There are no terms more bare than a textbook definition of a word, and Merriam-Webster's unassailable, plainly devastating retort showcases the company's ridiculous attempt to spin the situation far more effectively than any clever response from a pundit or joke from a comedian ever could.

The next day, one of Merriam-Webster's competitors, Dictionary.com, illustrated a rather large flaw in Press Secretary Sean Spicer's ill-advised comments about the Holocaust.

Gas chamber: an enclosure used for the execution of prisoners by means of a poisonous gas. https://t.co/iL6U45ErX5 https://t.co/CrvFK8brpg

— Dictionary.com (@Dictionarycom) April 11, 2017

To be clear, though, these aren't the first instances of dictionaries getting rambunctious on Twitter. As you can imagine, Donald Trump's rise to political prominence has provided both Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com with plenty of opportunities to clarify proper word usage.

In February 2016, Merriam-Webster spell-checked a tweet of Trump's that has since been deleted.

honer: one that hones (https://t.co/76PlKG8PA6)
leightweight: We have no. idea.
chocker: https://t.co/geeDMqiS4D https://t.co/2km86hZAVQ

— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) February 26, 2016

In October, they pointed out that "bigly" and "Big League," at least one of which Trump used repeatedly throughout his campaign, are both actual words.

So apparently we're doing this again. Cheers. 🍻 https://t.co/zHTNNl1XAE #debatenight

— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) October 20, 2016

A few days before the election, they predicted civilization's demise.

We've updated our Twitter header in honor of the election. pic.twitter.com/mOFT8sUlVD

— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) November 7, 2016

In December, they called out Trump for tweeting that China's capture of an American drone was an "unpresidented" act.

Good morning! The #WordOfTheDay is...not 'unpresidented'. We don't enter that word. That's a new one. https://t.co/BJ45AtMNu4

— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) December 17, 2016

When future education secretary Betsy DeVos tweeted that Trump's inauguration was "historical," Merriam-Webster pointed out the error.

'Historic' and 'historical' have subtly different meanings. https://t.co/2Pew5BZPXI

— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) January 21, 2017

They trolled Kellyanne Conway for trying to explain that Sean Spicer was using "alternative facts" while defending Trump's claims about the size of the crowd at his inauguration.

📈A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality. https://t.co/gCKRZZm23c

— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) January 22, 2017

*whispers into the void* In contemporary use, fact is understood to refer to something with actual existence. https://t.co/gCKRZZm23c

— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) January 24, 2017

After reports surfaced that the ovation Trump bragged about following his speech to the CIA mostly came from his own supporters rather than members of the intelligence community, Merriam-Webster was there tell us how to talk about it.

📈A 'claque' is a group hired to applaud. https://t.co/EX96vGLGDz

— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) January 24, 2017

They also pointed out why the White House's excuse for why it didn't include Jews in its Holocaust Remembrance Day statement was bullshit.

📈'Holocaust' is trending again. It is understood to refer especially to the Nazis' mass murder of European Jews. https://t.co/SpAZ9kiKrn

— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) January 30, 2017

And the next day, they did what Sean Spicer wouldn't.

📈Lookups for 'betrayal' spiked after Sean Spicer said "I'm not going to define the word."

We defined the word. https://t.co/alq6KqMgnF

— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) January 31, 2017

So yeah, it was a busy January for the Merriam-Webster Twitter account.

In February, Dictionary.com picked where Merriam-Webster left off, tweeting about the separation of church and state following Trump's vow to "destroy" the Johnson Amendment, which regulates the extent to which tax-exempt organizations like churches can meddle in politics.

We're just going to leave this here: https://t.co/Z3of9dtBkx#JohnsonAmendment

— Dictionary.com (@Dictionarycom) February 2, 2017

Merriam-Webster wasn't done, of course. Defining "fact" for Kellyanne Conway wasn't the last time they would pick on the Counselor to the President.

📈'Feminism' is defined as "the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities." https://t.co/Zjf7CAPUjL

— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) February 23, 2017

Though the Trump administration has provided a bounty of material for Merriam-Webster's Twitter account to work with, they don't confine their burns to politics.

They trolled those outraged that Ghostbusters was rebooted with an all-female cast.

Trust us: the feminine form of 'ghostbuster' is 'ghostbuster'.

— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) July 15, 2016

They called out their biggest rival.

.@Dictionarycom There's no cream in that coffee.

— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) April 11, 2016

Maybe the most debilitating own dished out by Merriam-Webster came at the hand of Slate's Gabriel Roth, who took issue with the dictionary's relaxed interpretations of some words. It was their loose definition "mad" that incited his tweet storm, to which Merriam-Webster replied:

No one cares how you feel.

— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) September 7, 2016

Pretty savage for a dictionary.

Roth later blogged about the experience, which he did not find amusing.

Merriam-Webster's epic pwnage of me this week has revealed that sense of security for the fabrication that it is. It turns out that an aggressive, forward-looking brand—a venerable-but-staid brand that has turned to social media to add a bit of edginess to its image, perhaps—can indeed act like a dick in public, and will be rewarded with thousands of retweets, with celebratory gifs, with a BuzzFeed post chronicling its "iconic drag." (Half a million views and still trending.) I worry that some previously unrecognized equilibrium has been toppled, and we're about to enter a late-late-capitalist dystopia in which brands roam the internet taking down civilians for fun. And when that day comes, we'll look back on @MerriamWebster's tweet and rue our LOLs, but it will be too late.

Though Roth may have a point, it wasn't likely to resonate on Twitter, where being Mad Online only enlarges the target on one's back. And yes, unfortunately for Roth, the "mad" in Mad Online refers to being angry.