Merriam-Webster’s digital avatar is a perfect ‘volunteer’ in times of ‘alternative facts’

The web-dictionary monitors its data about what words people are looking up and how much, and herein lie its timely interventions into the daily and the political.

Written by Nandini Rathi | New Delhi | Updated: April 11, 2017 5:48 pm

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In an era when many of us cannot remember when we stopped using the traditional paperback dictionaries, Merriam-Webster shines as one traditional giant that has recently reinvented itself on Twitter like a bad-ass.

What started as a reluctant, seemingly requisite creation of a the web version, has exquisitely capitalised on wit and timing, especially since the advent of Donald Trump in the last Presidential race. Lit Hub refers to the Merriam-Webster Twitter account as “topical, funny, smart, and informative while also being relentlessly irreverent”. The web-dictionary monitors its data about what words people are looking up and how much, and herein lie its timely interventions into the daily and the political. Most recently M-W is making news after the United Airlines passenger-dragging fiasco that has left the world annoyed and baffled.

United Airlines has been treated to some well-deserved flak on and off social media after the shocking video of it having an Asian passenger being dragged out by force, off an overbooked aircraft at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on Sunday, went viral. “After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate,” the company said in a statement on Monday. Merriam-Webster tweet-reported shortly after that the look-ups for the word “volunteer” had risen by 1900% since then.

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M-W tweet-reported that it defines “volunteer” as “someone who does something without being forced to it” — which contradicts the usage of the word by United Airlines in its defense.

This is but the latest instance of Merriam-Webster making a mark with some good old word sense. Prior to this, it has made its presence felt several times by trolling the Trump administration for their frequently aspired departures from established meanings of English language terms.

Less than a week ago, the dictionary defined the word “complicit” for the benefit of Ivanka Trump. On April 4, in her first interview since becoming a White House employee, the First daughter of the United States was asked by Gayle King of CBS News about her views on allegations that she and husband Jared Kushner had been complicit with her father over the activities going on in the White House administration. She responded to that by saying that she did not know what “complicit” meant. “If being complicit … is wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact, then I’m complicit”, she said, “So I hope to make a positive impact. I don’t know what it means to be complicit, but I hope time will prove that I have done a good job and much more importantly that my father’s administration is the success that I know it will be.”

M-W came to the rescue on the word not known to the President’s daughter, by tweeting the link to the meaning of ‘complicit’, which it defines as “helping to commit a crime or do wrong in some way.” Thus qualifying Ivanka’s interpretation of the word as, well, incorrect.

M-W catches on to the trending words getting special attention, which is oft in line with the materialising politics of the day. On February 23, the dictionary also gently reminded Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, the definition of Feminism, after she proclaimed that she was not a feminist “in the classic sense” because that seemed to be very “anti-male” and very “pro-abortion”.

To quote yet another, this was when Conway’s “alternative facts” became a thing and the definition of “fact” immediately became sought after by people:

The role of a dictionary is to keep us all on the same page with word meanings and bridge the gap between vocabularies. Language being communication, this is critical, especially after what was widely referred to as the post-facts Presidential elections in the United States. Merriam-Webster sure has mastered its snarky, interactive avatar which in turn has humanised and contemporised the function of a dictionary.

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