When you rewatch the interview, you can see she pauses for a split second before the words come out of her mouth.
Kellyanne Conway, senior counselor to the president, was being grilled by NBC’s Chuck Todd early on Jan. 22 about why the White House press secretary had lied to reporters about the size of Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd when she uttered a phrase that would come to define the new administration’s first week in office.
“You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving — Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave…” Conway said, halting for the briefest of moments, “alternative facts to that.”
The reaction was instantaneous and explosive. Soon, some 730 tweets were being sent every minute using the phrase “alternative facts,” and more than 720 using “#AlternativeFacts.” In the following days, hundreds of thousands more would follow.
Though with 49,000 retweets and 61,000 likes, one of that Sunday’s most-shared tweets on the topic was not from a cable news program or some influential politician — it came from a dictionary.
“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality,” read a tweet from the staff at Merriam-Webster, linking to a dictionary article showing searches for the word “fact” had spiked after Conway’s interview. Simple yet full of shade, neutral yet undeniably pointed, it was the right tweet from the right account at just the right moment of public chaos.
“@KellyannePolls,” read one person’s reply that tagged Conway’s account, “when the dictionary is trolling you, you might want to reconsider everything in your life.”
That the tweet went viral was no coincidence. Its tone and timing were the product of more than a year of work by the Merriam-Webster staff in reimagining and overhauling their entire social media strategy — and, in doing so, their place in this new world of alternative facts.
“When I joined the company — and I never thought of this before — I was quite literally the very first editor who had a computer at my desk,” said Peter Sokolowski, the dictionary’s editor-at-large, of his arrival at Merriam-Webster’s Springfield, Massachusetts, headquarters in 1994.
A lot has changed since then. Like the rest of the media and publishing industries, digitization and the internet have fundamentally transformed the entire notion of reference books.
Think of the last time you had to look up a word. Did you thumb through the pages of a hardcover book? (Do you own one?) Did you even end your online search terms with the word “definition” or did Google automatically complete your thought and give you the definition without even linking you out to another site?
To stay relevant, Merriam-Webster, like its competitors, built out an editorial team that needs to do two things: first, produce content that can be shared and draw people to the website, and second, advertise this content — and the Merriam-Webster brand itself — on social platforms.
But a little over a year ago, Merriam-Webster’s social media presence was not particularly remarkable. In the hands of a cautious marketing department, posts about the “word of the day” were about as exciting as things got. “Entirely staid and predictable, and not at all interactive” is how Lisa Schneider, chief digital officer and publisher, described it.
Schneider realized something had to change.
Surrounded by funny and intelligent colleagues, she found inspiration in the online office banter on Slack that made coming to work such a pleasure. “So here was this cool brand with smart, sassy conversations and comebacks happening in the office every day — I wanted to share that with the world,” she told BuzzFeed News.
In January 2016, Schneider hired Lauren Naturale, a PhD English student at UC Berkeley and freelance contributor to outlets like The Toast and Bitch Media, to execute the new strategy as Merriam-Webster’s content and social media manager, and the editorial team began to grow. Naturale was tasked with developing a new online identity for the dictionary, one that was engaging, quirky, and even sassy — in short, to try to blow the dust off the dictionary’s stuffy reputation.
With the presidential campaign dominating the national conversation, politics seemed an easy place to begin.
In February, the Merriam-Webster Twitter account’s first respectably viral hit (1,500 retweets) came during a Republican presidential debate: “Yes, ‘bigly’ is in the dictionary. #GOPDebate.” An even bigger hit came the very next day when the dictionary mocked Donald Trump for a series of spelling mistakes in his tweets. (His spelling of “chocker,” as opposed to “choker,” was met with a link to the word “nope.”)
“My boss and I spent the day obsessively refreshing our notifications and wondering if I would get fired," Naturale said of the “chocker” tweet.
But Naturale didn’t have to worry about her job — her bosses were thrilled.
“It was like hearing stereo for the first time,” said Sokolowski of the new tone. “It was like seeing a color film from black and white. It just felt like this wonderful amplification of what we do in exactly the right tone.”
Politics continued to provide some of the dictionary’s most viral hits. The day before the election, Merriam-Webster scored 15,000 retweets when it updated its Twitter header image to the word "Götterdämmerung": “a collapse (as of a society or regime) marked by catastrophic violence and disorder.”
Even after last month’s Conway tweets, the dictionary still wasn’t done dragging the White House. Amid reports Trump had kicked off his presidential campaign by speaking to a crowd of paid actors at Trump Tower, Merriam-Webster was subtweeting the new president by sharing the definition of “claque” (a group hired to applaud).
Last week, the dictionary took the fight to some Trump supporters by exploring the history of the word “snowflake,” an insult now thrown at so-called sensitive liberals. It noted with an unmistakable sense of irony, “In Missouri in the early 1860s, a 'snowflake' was a person who was opposed to the abolition of slavery.”
And as recently as Tuesday morning, Merriam-Webster staff noted they had re-added the word "snollygoster" to the dictionary. It means "a shrewd and unprincipled person, especially an unprincipled politician."
“We're probably not the best people to decide whether we're woke or not,” said Merriam-Webster associate editor Kory Stamper. “But we will say this: Anyone who spends their life sifting through how language is used also has to sift through history, and how words have been used at various points to harm, erase, or exclude. Our job is to tease language out from spin, politicking, rhetoric, and apologetics, and tell the truth about what a word means."
In addition to Merriam-Webster being up for a web award, the work of the revamped editorial team — which now consists of a dozen editors, data analysts, and graphic designers — has caught the attention of its competitors. Dictionary.com, for example, took inspiration from the Merriam-Webster approach by posting a definition of “the Holocaust” on Jan. 30 amid criticism of the White House for not mentioning Jews in its statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day: “The Holocaust (‘The’ is important): ‘the systematic mass slaughter of European Jews,’” read the tweet. “Not much ambiguity on that.”
“It’s a fantastic thing that they’re doing, and I really applaud them,” Wendalyn Nichols, the publishing manager for the online Cambridge Dictionary, told BuzzFeed News of Merriam-Webster’s tone and willingness to experiment.
She praised them for developing an authentic sense of identity and having the guts to stick with it. “What we have all found doesn’t work is if you deliberately try to do something in order for it to go viral. The thing that you didn’t want to have go viral will,” Nichols said. “So you need to really stick to your message and stick to your voice and maintain your integrity in the middle of all it, and then it’s really hard to go astray.”
Nichols did, however, distinguish her dictionary from Merriam-Webster's by noting that Cambridge Dictionary is geared toward foreigners learning English as a second language and must also be mindful of not embarrassing the prestigious University of Cambridge brand. “We can’t be quite as flippant about things,” she said with a laugh.
Much of the content Merriam-Webster shares on social media comes from the dictionary’s own users. Because the dictionary now largely lives online, a Merriam-Webster data team can see in real time what words people are searching, creating engaging content for the social squad to share.
The results have provided fascinating snapshots into the shifting American consciousness as the country navigates its way through a turbulent political era. "Feminism” trended during last month’s Women’s March, for example, just a day after people searched for “carnage” during Trump’s inaugural address. In the waning months of 2016, one tweet in particular about the year’s most-searched-for word proved particularly terrifying.
As anyone who studied linguistics in college may remember, most modern dictionaries embrace what is known as a descriptivist view of language. Rather than insisting on the so-called proper usage of a word or phrase (an approach known as prescriptivism), today most lexicographers (i.e., people who work at dictionaries) study the way words are actually being used and make note accordingly. That’s how you end up with, for example, dictionary entries for “they” in the third-person singular form or “heart” as a verb.
Inherent in this descriptivist approach, then, is the notion that a dictionary is a rather passive creature, monitoring the public conversation but not injecting itself into it.
That, of course, is being somewhat challenged by Merriam-Webster having a Twitter account with such a forceful public voice.
The most infamous example of this tone arguably came in September when Gabriel Roth, a senior editor at Slate, went on a mini-tweetstorm against Merriam-Webster’s wholehearted embrace of descriptivism. “I feel like @MerriamWebster is turning into the ‘chill’ parent who lets your friends come over and get high,” he wrote. “Sometimes we need totally arbitrary and unfair rules.”
Roth awoke the next day to a short yet stinging one-tweet response from Naturale — or rather, from the dictionary: “No one cares how you feel.”
The viral put-down was shared and favorited thousands of times, and even spawned a BuzzFeed article. Roth declined to speak for this story, but as he wrote at the time for Slate, the tweet’s power and popularity arguably came from the juxtaposition of the taunt with the esteemed brand of a dictionary. “It’s not the words, it’s the shock of seeing them attributed to a well-known brand with 118,000 followers that’s usually associated with school and spelling,” he wrote.
A dictionary is, after all, a voice of authority. (The unabridged version of the Merriam-Webster hardcover even includes those very words on its cover.) It represents a concept of definitive truth and meaning. People trust what a dictionary says without thinking about it. Does a snarky Twitter account undermine this?
Cambridge’s Wendalyn Nichols said that Merriam-Webster’s online voice does not lessen its authority, but simply harnesses it to explore words in a tone befitting the social media age. “When you’re going out into the tweet world and being flippant about things, in a way what you’re doing is drawing attention back to the things that matter, about how language is still relevant, how things cannot be devoid of significance and meaning,” she said. “You’re drawing attention back to the weight that people do give these authorities.”
Sokolowski, the Merriam-Webster editor-at-large, said he would prefer the public see his dictionary as a voice of objectivity and honesty, rather than authority. “If people are turning to the dictionary when facts are questioned,” he said, “especially when lexical facts are questioned, when the meaning of a word is questioned, I say that’s fantastic because that’s what dictionaries have always done and that’s what they’re for.”
In this journalistic spirit, he denied that the Merriam-Webster Twitter response to Conway’s “alternative facts” remark was evidence of political bias at the dictionary. “When a public figure uses language in a remarkable way that makes the news, it’s fair game for us to report on the dictionary traffic and talk about the word itself without being considered political,” he said.
“And it may be that we are in a moment right now where that kind of objective reporting based upon our tradition in history and the brand may be of particular significance.”
David Mack is a reporter and weekend editor for BuzzFeed News in New York.
Contact David Mack at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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