On May 5, 2018, Sarah Huckabee Sanders posted a tweet calling any feminist Democrat who did not support Gina Haspel’s CIA nomination a “total hypocrite.” In response, a popular Twitter account quote tweeted Sanders, adding a definition of the word “hypocrite” that was clearly not directed at Democrats.
Now, you may think that was a sick burn or a little out of line, depending on your political affiliations and feelings toward the Trump White House. But regardless of your personal feelings, you’d likely be surprised by the tweeter:
As of late, the popular online dictionary has been branching out beyond definitions, words of the day, and quizzes—to political and social commentary. And they’ve been doing so with a unique lexical twist.
Dictionary.com has mastered the art of the double entendre, passive aggressively quote tweeting politicians and celebrities with dictionary entries that can be read as both a definition of a word and savage commentary on the original tweeter. They’ve mocked everyone from Sarah Sanders to DJ Khaled to Mike Pence to Donald Trump:
And these examples are just from the last week. Internet writers and tweeters have been praising Dictionary.com left and right, with a clear tone of surprise. “Even the Dictionary Is Roasting Trump…” “Even Dictionary.com weighed in with a hot take…”
“Even the dictionary.” These three words convey a lot of assumptions about what dictionaries are and what they typically do. They imply that the dictionary’s involvement in these controversial issues is unusual, atypical, noteworthy. Even the articles that do not employ this phrase make it clear that Dictionary.com’s tweets are out of the norm. For example, after Dictionary.com tweeted that Mike Pence was a “sycophant,” The Washington Post noted that this joke comes “from an unlikely source,” and Bustle claimed that, “If there’s any warning sign for a politician, it’s when the dictionary starts dunking on you.” For its part, Dictionary.com has not shied away from its newfound notoriety, actively embracing it.
So, why does this feel so unusual, and is that a bad thing?
The Dictionary as Authority
Dictionaries exist in an interesting position in American culture: they have the reputation of being objective catalogues of language as it is used, free from bias and politics and linguistic prejudices—after all, they will even include much-abused words likes “irregardless” if they are used frequently enough and documented in print. Dictionaries are also perceived as trusted authorities on language. And very few people think about who writes them. To most, dictionaries just Exist.
Who does write the dictionary? And can dictionaries really be objective authorities? These aren’t questions we typically ask as we search Dictionary.com to learn a ten-cent vocabulary word or settle a spelling dispute by checking the OED. But as technology and reading habits are changing, so are dictionaries. In the age of the internet, dictionaries are shifting online, taking on new roles. So, it’s worth asking, what is the purpose of a dictionary?
A common misconception about dictionaries is that they are gatekeepers of “correct” or “proper” English. Just ask any freshman composition student who begins his or her research paper by referencing Merriam-Webster.
This desire for an objective and decisive authority on English has a long history. Back in the 17th century, popular English authors like Daniel Defoe and John Dryden submitted proposals to establish an Academy of English—an institution that would set clear standards for the English language and regulate usage. In the 19th century, many Americans like John Adams and William S. Cardell followed suit, advocating for and institution that would “settle varying orthography; determine the use of doubtful words and phrases; and … form and maintain, as far as practicable, an English standard of writing and pronunciation, correct, fixed, and uniform, throughout our extensive territory.”
Thankfully, such an academy never came to be, but some of the earliest dictionary writers also hung onto this idea of dictionary as the authority on “right” language. In the preface to his A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson stated his intention that his dictionary would help rein in the unruly English language: “every language has likewise its improprieties and absurdities, which it is the duty of the lexicographer to correct or proscribe.” (The entire preface is fun reading, by the way.)
Despite what Johnson believed about dictionaries, their role has shifted significantly in the intervening centuries. Today, most lexicographers claim that dictionaries do not aim to prescribe language usage at all; rather, their goal is to describe how language is used in real life by real people—even if it’s messy and constantly changing.
As former Merriam-Webster Editor Kory Stamper writes in her recent book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries,
“Many people…believe that the dictionary is some great guardian of the English language…Words that have made it into the dictionary are Official with a capital O, sanctioned, part of Real and Proper English. … This is commonly called ‘prescriptivism,’ and it is unfortunately not how dictionaries work. … We are just observers, and the goal is to describe, as accurately as possible, as much of the language as we can. This approach is ‘descriptivism,’ and it is the philosophical basis for almost all modern dictionaries.” (p. 35)
Many people still see dictionaries as objective authorities, however, somehow set apart from the day-to-day usage of English, recording the language from afar. If you have this mindset, you probably don’t talk back to the dictionary, and it certainly doesn’t talk back to you.
The Internet Age
Yet, times are changing as technology evolves, and the internet has changed the way many people interact with dictionaries:
“People now pay with their eyes, not with their wallets, which means that online dictionary that runs ads need to keep eyeballs on its pages longer. The craft of writing a good definition isn’t as important in the click economy: what is important is being agile enough to do what it takes to get to the top of an Internet search results page.” (Kory Stamper, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, p. 259)
The same tactics that worked for the print dictionaries of the past will not work for dictionaries that exist online now. Dictionaries’ ability to stay divorced from the day to day kerfuffles of politics, pop culture, and world events is eroding quickly. They need to stay relevant, stay at the top of people’s news feeds, get more clicks to generate ad revenue. So, it’s not surprising that dictionaries are becoming much more interactive. Stamper notes that “as dictionaries have moved online, lexicographers have developed a direct connection with users that they’ve never had before” (p. 232). Social media spaces are inherently dynamic. People can communicate with the dictionary (or, rather, those on its staff) like never before—and the dictionary’s staff can talk back in real time.
So, is this change a bad thing? Maybe it’s good to move away from a culture where we think of dictionaries as authoritative tomes with no authors and without bias, that simply exist as arbiters of language. Maybe it would be a positive move to think of dictionaries as only one side of an ongoing dialogue about language. A dialogue where the dictionary can comment on current events and people can comment back. Maybe getting involved in the political fray—and being up front about the biases of editors—could do some good. And to Dictionary.com’s credit, they’ve recently posted a video highlighting one of the real people on their staff, entitled “Did You Know Real People Write The Dictionary?”
To adapt to the internet age, many dictionaries have created innovative and useful content—from word quizzes to blog posts on etymology to ESL resources. Maybe this is a sign that dictionaries can use their cultural clout for good purposes: to battle misconceptions about language, to address the unfair assumptions we make about people who use nonstandard dialects, or to make words a little more fun. This may be a pie-in-the-sky best-case scenario, but is the changing status of the dictionary, and the public forum in which we can now talk back to it, a small step in the right direction—a step toward pushing the dictionary off of its cultural pedestal, while still valuing and respecting its usefulness?
Are We Role-ing Over the Line?
Right now, dictionaries exist in a liminal space, where their authority (and bias) isn’t necessarily well-defined. People are starting to notice Dictionary.com’s social commentary, but they’re still surprised by it. It’s easy to laugh at the dictionary’s tweets, because, hey, some of them are really funny. And if you happen to agree with Dictionary.com’s political ideology, you are likely inclined to enjoy their jokes. But what if Dictionary.com’s tweets are not just opinionated, but legitimately misleading, like when they inaccurately described this controversial Bari Weiss article last week? Or what if they make fun of people’s word usage and spelling mistakes, like when they derided Donald Trump’s misuse of “roll” vs. “role”, mocked Ivanka’s unfortunate malapropism, and announced the word of the year was “covfefe” (just kidding, it was “complicit”)?
Calling Donald Trump a traitor or Sarah Sanders a hypocrite is ultimately a matter of opinion, albeit a controversial one. And nearly everyone enjoys chuckling over a good “covfefe” joke. But is there a danger that striving to comment on every trending discussion and hot take will lead to carelessness, at best, or political bias that results in genuinely misleading statements, at worst?
Why does this matter? Because, at the end of the day, people do trust dictionaries. And we (hopefully) don’t want to create a culture where it seems like the record of English language is against people with certain ideologies or speech patterns. Dictionary.com has every right to be opinionated on Twitter, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t thoroughly enjoy their snark. If they want to brand themselves as the activist dictionary, the dictionary that cracks jokes, more power to them. Their tweets are funny. But I think they also risk alienating a lot of people, and I wonder if we are moving toward a space where people not only have their preferred news sources based on political ideology, but also their preferred dictionaries. If more dictionaries follow the example of Dictionary.com, will these reference works begin to skew in one political direction? Will Dictionary.com become the Liberal Dictionary, with others filling in the conservative gap? Or will opening up a two-way dialogue between dictionaries and their readers outweigh any potential downsides?
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you love or hate Dictionary.com’s Twitter? What is the role of a dictionary? Are you excited for that role to change? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll be back in two weeks with another blog post about words.
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