Move over, Wikipedia, dictionaries are hot again

Democrat Elizabeth Warren.
Democrat Elizabeth Warren.

NEW YORK • In the hours after Democrat Elizabeth Warren was silenced by her Republican colleagues for "impugning" a fellow senator by reading aloud a letter the late activist Coretta Scott King had written that was critical of senator Jeff Sessions (later confirmed as attorney general), thousands of Americans did what they always do: They tapped away at their phones.

But they were not checking text messages or liking a photo on Facebook. They were thumbing through online dictionaries, looking for a definition of "impugn". On Wednesday morning, dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster posted on its website that searches on the word had surged. "It's been at the top for almost 12 hours now," said Mr Peter Sokolowski, its editor-at-large.

As he wrote on its website: "'Impugn' means to oppose or attack as false or lacking integrity or to criticise (a person's character, intentions, etc) by suggesting that someone is not honest and should not be trusted. It comes from the Latin word 'pugnare', meaning 'to fight', which is also the root of 'pugnacious' and 'pugilism'."

A tweet posted to the dictionary's feed linking to this definition quickly racked up several hundred retweets.

At a time when many are questioning the definition of common words they thought they understood, after years of the English language being degraded by text messages and hashtags, dictionaries have made a surprising comeback in the United States.

On dictionary apps and websites, "lookups" (which, according to Merriam-Webster, is one word) of words or phrases related to news events have precipitously increased. Bibliophiles are becoming social media stars. Sales of print dictionaries remain brisk and are a profit centre for some publishers.

"Dictionaries are not regarded as sexy or interesting, but what dictionaries are known for is telling the truth," said lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, past president of the American Dialect Society. "Right now, there are a lot of questions about what is true. We want clear statements about what things are and dictionaries provide that."

But some dictionary companies are embracing the personality-driven culture of the digital age to make lexicography more accessible and perhaps drive advertising revenue through clicks.

Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com use Twitter and other networks to share "word of the day" features, real-time data about words that are suddenly being searched by large numbers of people and cheeky observations on public figures and their use of language.

Both companies have been criticised and heralded for using pointed words in social media to promote their definitions. For instance, in early February, US President Donald Trump posted on Twitter, "Professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters are proving the point of the millions of people who voted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!"

Later that day, the feed for Dictionary.com posted, "'Professional anarchists' falls into our new favourite category: Alternative facts!"

The intent is not to be political or partisan, said Ms Lauren Sliter, who runs the marketing department at Dictionary.com and writes the Twitter feed. "We have gone from an era of great oratory to an era of great tweets," she said. But since tweets often lack context and nuance, "things can come off as a little ambiguous and we want to be helpful in clarifying things".

In the past week, Ms Lauren Naturale, a one-time college English instructor who writes the Merriam-Webster tweets, has become a media darling thanks to her wry and pointed posts.

"The information we share is relevant in a new way that gets more attention," she wrote in an e-mail forwarded by Merriam-Webster's publicist. "There's also a sense that we're increasingly divided and the dictionary's role is to help people communicate with one another."

This is not the only role, of course. Lexicographer Sheidlower said: "In times of stress, people will go to things that will provide answers. The Bible, the dictionary or alcohol."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2017, with the headline 'Move over, Wikipedia, dictionaries are hot again'. Print Edition | Subscribe