Americans are turning to an unusual source to help them decode the presidential campaign and the rhetoric of the day: the dictionary.
In 1996, Merriam-Webster took a gamble and put its dictionary online, available for all to use without a fee. For the first time in 175 years, we had real-time information about how people were using their dictionaries.
It was fascinating. Everything we assumed about how people use the dictionary was wrong. People didn’t look up the terms you think dictionaries are for - National Spelling Bee words. People looked up words they were familiar with, whose meanings they had some vague knowledge about. What they were looking for, it seemed, was nuance and explication. What exactly does “pragmatic” mean; what parts of your personality are covered by “disposition”?
This pattern became even more defined during the election. We don’t, for instance, look up key policy words. Instead, we seek out words that catch us by the ears. One of the biggest searches we’ve seen this election cycle is “bigly,” an unusual, old-fashioned word supposedly used quite a bit by Republican nominee Donald Trump. In many cases Trump isn’t actually saying “bigly,” but no matter. That’s what people hear, so that’s what they look up. Thanks to our real-time tracking tools, lexicographers can watch a word’s lookup rank jump in real time, tracking parallel to the news.
Before social media, that’s where the line of inquiry typically ended: Look up a word and get its definition as dictionary nerds watch behind the scenes. It was fascinating information, and it sparked plenty of conversations in our office. But we were the only ones who noticed. What if, we thought, we started sharing it?
Merriam-Webster joined Twitter in 2009, and began tweeting lookups not long after. To our surprise, people talked back and haven’t stopped.
As we’ve gotten more into social media, we’ve seen in our daily conversations a mostly hidden truth: Language is personal. We play with it, argue over it, feel deeply about it. Of course, it’s hard to say anything about this election without getting accused of being political. But we only note that a word spike exists; we don’t offer a lot of color commentary. Still, sometimes people complain that we are in the tank for Clinton or Trump. Others accuse us of distracting from the issue at hand.
The truth, though, is that we’re in the tank only for the English language. It doesn’t matter whether a dictionary user is politically left or right. When they look up “temperament” or “bigot” to verify a candidate’s use jibes with their understanding of the word, or when they look up “dystopian” or “deplorable” because they feel hopeless about whichever political prospect lies ahead, they aren’t alone. The lookups provide an unfiltered, unprecedented look at the collective mind of the electorate, and in sharing them, we all learn something - even the dictionary.
Most people assume the dictionary is a static, fixed thing. But in reality, the dictionary is an ever-changing cross-section of a living language. It follows its speakers like a dog tailing a messy eater, gobbling up everything it can.
Social media has given us retiring word nerds a place to geek out, to share knowledge, to have a meaningful connection with other people who love this confusing and brilliant language just as much as we do. During the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton said “words matter.” It’s only natural we’d agree. But we’re finding more and more that the people behind the words matter most.
Kory Stamper is a lexicographer and editor for the Merriam-Webster family of dictionaries.