This election season has had a big impact on the way we talk.
At least, that’s the claim Merriam-Webster made in a recent blog post. “The 2016 presidential campaign has its own distinctive vocabulary,” the dictionary wrote. That vocabulary has included: unproud, locker-room, deplorable, stamina, among many other words that have very real definitions but have taken on new and engorged meanings when bandied about by politicians.
In fact, the dictionary has shared a nearly 40-term list comprising words that Americans have questioned feverishly online shortly after a figure like Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump uttered it aloud to the public. Some of them have literal meanings that fit already; others are taking on new figurative ones. For an example, see the phrase “go nuclear,” literally defined as “to acquire or to utilize nuclear weapons or nuclear power.” Its figurative meaning, increasingly relevant in the 2016 presidential debate era? “To become furious; to resort to drastic measures in an attempt to undermine an opponent.”
“That’s right: this election is so negative that it’s affecting what some words mean,” the nameless Merriam-Webster blogger concluded.
Merriam-Webster has become the unlikely ― and, at times, hilarious ― election watchdog we never knew we needed. Its Twitter account churns out commentary before, during and after debates, dissecting lexicon and reporting online look-up spikes as they happen.
But who, exactly, is the public face of Merriam-Webster? Who is the evil genius behind tweets like these:
Though they ― BTW, we’re using the singular version of the pronoun here ― did not divulge their name, the Merriam-Webster social media editor recently consented to a short email exchange with The Huffington Post. When asked about their background, the anonymous interview subject responded: “Our social media manager has an MA in English and taught college English for a number of years.”
They described their social media voice as such: “Our Twitter account sounds like the actual people in our office talking about language, and our goal is to share the passion and fun and help people love language as much as we do!”
What this description leaves out is the editor’s penchant for cleverly deployed snark. Earlier this year, BuzzFeed ran a piece headlined “People Can’t Get Over The Dictionary’s ― Yes, The Dictionary’s ― Savage Clapback.” The short post outlined how Merriam-Webster responded to Slate editor Gabriel Roth’s indictment of the dictionary’s tendency to take a less strict approach to classifying words, comparing the dictionary to a lax parent.
The tweeted response takes the form of six simple, patronly words.
Merriam-Webster’s lax attitude stems from the fact that it is a descriptivist dictionary, which means “it records the language as it’s used,” Merriam-Webster’s social media editor (MWSME) explained to HuffPost, rather than adhering to age-old meanings reflective of different times and contexts. It would, to use a popular reference point, accept that the word “literally” can be used to mean “figuratively.”
“It’s worth noting that all professionally edited dictionaries are, by nature, descriptivist: They describe the language, not legislate or approve it,” they said. On the other hand, “all professionally edited dictionaries are also prescriptivist to a certain extent: they offer varying degrees of information and advice about how to use the words they enter.”
During this election season, Merriam-Webster has flexed its descriptivist muscle to the amusement of many. With 137,000 followers on Twitter and several articles devoted to its growing influence across the web, it’s embraced not only public debates ― but the power of the internet to shape the way we talk.
Instead of restricting itself to the confines of a printed tome, it’s stretched its authority to realms of social media, articulate clapback after clapback.
While the true identity of the MWSME still remains a mystery, they did leave us with some helpful parting words, for us all to ponder as this election comes to a close.
The next time a politician forces you to Google the definition of “demagogue,” remember: “Language is an organic entity, so predicting its movements is almost as impossible as trying to control a herd of cats with your mind.”