Merriam-Webster in the Age of Social Media

At a talk at the New York Public Library, Peter Sokolowski, the dictionary's editor at large, discussed Merriam-Webster's evolution and the power of its online presence.

Reference works, even best-selling ones, rarely get patrons buzzing the way can’t-miss novels do. But at a talk on June 26 at the New York Public Library’s Grand Central Branch, Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster, proved that reference books can generate just as much conversation as popular fiction.

At “The Dictionary as Data,” Sokolowski discussed Merriam-Webster’s evolution and the valuable information that has been mined from its online presence.

Sokolowski noted that historically, editors of dictionaries have had a strong sense of the words that are the most frequently used, but not which words people are looking up, or why. That changed when Merriam-Webster’s dictionary was made freely available online in 1996. (Though www.Merriam-Webster.com was initially based on Webster's Collegiate® Dictionary, 11th ed., the site has undergone more updates than the print version, with additional entries and features.)

At first, the most frequently searched for words were, unsurprisingly, difficult or esoteric ones.

But it wasn’t long before something else started to drive searches: current events.

By the end of summer 1997, the top three most searched for words were “paparazzi,” “cortège,” and “princess”—terms related to the death of Princess Diana. Journalists checking their spelling likely caused “paparazzi” to spike, while people probably looked up “cortège” because it’s a French term and potentially unfamiliar.

Searches for “princess,” a common word, perplexed Sokolowski, but he theorized that people probably were less interested in defining the term and more curious about questions of rank: “Is one born a princess? Will a princess automatically become a queen?”

After September 11, the most frequently searched for terms were “rubble,” “triage,” “succumb,” “terrorism,” “jingoism,” and, most significantly, “surreal,” which is also the number one word that Americans look up after other tragedies, such as the Sandy Hook shooting and the Boston Marathon bombings. But unlike these other words, “surreal” isn’t used in newspapers or politicians’ speeches. Sokolowski believes that something deeper about the word resonates with Americans.

“It’s not a concrete word. It’s not a newsy word; it’s a word of interpretation,” he said. “I think this one is a spontaneous word…that we look up ourselves.”

Sokolowski observed that after Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, searches for emaciated increased, likely because even though most adults know the word, they were surprised to see it used in the coroner’s report for the King of Pop.

While the dictionary’s editors can theorize about why certain words trend, Sokolowski stressed that they can never be sure. “We’re good at reading data; we’re not good at reading minds.”

Some searches appear to be seasonal. “Love” is usually the most searched for term during the first two weeks of February, and around September 1 searches for “plagiarism,” “culture,” and “diversity” increase as first-year students go through college orientation.

Politics also drives searches. Queries for “socialism” skyrocketed in 2015, likely owing to Senator Bernie Sanders using the term during the Democratic debates. “Concentration camp” spiked earlier this week when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used the phrase to refer to the detention camps where immigrant children are being held.

And many users looked up “unprecedented” after President Donald Trump misspelled it (“unpresidented”) in a tweet—a response that Sokolowski believes contradicts the idea that technology and social media are making language sloppier.

“Social media is a written medium largely, and young people are writing more today than [they] ever did before,” he said. Spelling counts, he noted, and people care about language and meaning.

But Merriam-Webster isn’t just providing information; it’s also joining larger conversations through its lively tweets. The dictionary has needled Trump for his misspellings: “The #WordoftheDay is...not ‘unpresidented’. We don’t enter that word. That’s a new one.”

It also weighed in on the much-debated decision to make the title character of Doctor Who a woman: “‘Doctor’ has no gender in English.”

“Implicitly the country is asking us a question. Therefore there is no better place to answer than on social media,” said Sokolowski.

And each year the dictionary selects a Word of the Year, based on visitors’ suggestions and the results of an online poll. In 2017, the year the Women’s March took place and the #MeToo movement took off, the word was “feminism.”

“A lot of people accuse us of becoming political. We have never been political. It’s always about the data.”

But, Sokolowski emphasizes, these web searches illustrate that Merriam-Webster is addressing a need.

“At a time of alternative facts and fake news, a neutral, objective arbiter of truth is ultimately a backstop for everyone. The dictionary does represent that, and it always has.”

Author Image
Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor for Library Journal, and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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