Best of 2016 (Behind the Scenes): Merriam-Webster's social team on their viral Twitter account
If you’ve been on Twitter this past year, odds are you’ve come across more than a few popular — and often hilarious —tweets from Merriam-Webster, a.k.a. the dictionary.
It’s easy to see why the social media account boasts more than 200,000 followers: Amid tweets sharing the Word of the Day or various facts or observations pertaining to language, there’s a wry wit on display, one that becomes even more obvious with each user interaction. (Just check out a tweet below announcing “surreal” as the Word of the Year.)
While this is nothing new when it comes to the dictionary’s social media game, 2016 was the year it really stepped into the spotlight. Whether defending its inclusion of terms like “cisgender” and “genderqueer” or live-tweeting the U.S. presidential debate, Merriam-Webster was irreverently educating the Twitter-sphere one word at a time.
Here, we spoke with members of their social and editorial teams — Chief Digital Officer & Publisher Lisa Schneider, Social Media Manager Lauren Naturale, Associate Editors Emily Brewster and Kory Stamper, and Editor at Large Peter Sokolowski — for a look at how their tweets come together.
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ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Who runs the Merriam-Webster Twitter account?
LISA SCHNEIDER: Lauren [Naturale] is the primary tweeter, but it reflects the work of many different people. A lot of our tweets are quotes from, or summaries of, articles we publish on the site — so the writers’ voices are all in there too, as well as the voices of the people sharing the office, who, unsurprisingly, are full of opinions! It’s absolutely a team effort. We’re blessed to work with this many smart, funny, passionate people.
How did the account’s voice come about? Was there anything in particular that made you realize that people were really responding to it?
LAUREN NATURALE: The tone of the account reflects the way we actually talk to each other in the office and on Slack: We’re always geeking out about language, and everyone here is really funny. The tweets are filtered through the character of the dictionary, but the voices are real — that’s why people respond. People have been responding for a while now, but I was most excited when they started drawing us fan art.
The Twitter account really feels like it’s a living dictionary. How do people tend to interact with it?NATURALE: Social media is about connecting with people; it’s not just a platform for announcements. We love that our followers are very engaged, and the conversations are usually the best part of Twitter — we’ll tweet something about how the German word for “mansplaining” is herrklären, and the next thing you know, a PhD candidate in Iceland is tweeting at us to say that in Icelandic it’s hrútskýra, literally “ram explain.” We’re lucky enough to have thousands of very smart, very funny people tweeting at us all the time.
The account seemed to get involved with current events more this year, defending the inclusion of terms like “genderqueer” and live-tweeting the debates. What was it about this year in particular that prompted it?
EMILY BREWSTER: Twitter is a great platform for reminding people just exactly what our job is: to provide good information about what words mean. The set of terms relating to gender and sexuality that we’ve added in recent years is like any other; as established members of the language — we have evidence of these terms in published, edited text from a variety of sources and over an extended period of time — they meet our criteria for entry. The fact is that people are increasingly encountering terms like “genderqueer” and “cisgender” in conversation and online. We would be remiss not to define them.
KORY STAMPER: And this isn’t actually our first presidential debate rodeo — we live-tweeted debate lookups in 2012, too! We’ve had the ability to track lookups in real-time for a long time, and they’ve always sparked conversation among us in the office. When we started sharing them with the public on Twitter, we found that other people thought they were interesting, too. That’s where the impetus to live-tweet the debates (and, frankly, the whole election season) came from. Seeing what sorts of words people look up during a news event or a debate provides a jumping-off point for conversations about the nature and importance of language. And interest in the lookups has been incredibly high this year, in part because this election cycle has put language itself under greater scrutiny than ever.
NATURALE: It’s a tradition at this point. We just didn’t realize that the whole world would be watching.
After Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life came out, “In Omnia Paratus” was one of the most searched for terms on the site. Is that a common trend after a big pop culture event like that? Have any other pop culture-related things been searched a lot this year?
SOKOLOWSKI: Absolutely. While it’s true that this was a year with a lot of political words in the news, we reported many other spikes as well. Words associated with the World Series coverage (“irregardless“), the Olympics (“repechage” and “winningest“), and movies (“revenant“) send people to the dictionary.
You mentioned on Twitter that “fascism” has been one of the most searched words this year. Has there been any change since?
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: “Fascism” had a big spike on Nov. 9, and was the top word overall for November. It’s still high, but it has been a word that is looked up frequently for a number of years and has become essentially a perennial on our list, like “integrity,” “socialism,” “culture,” and “pragmatic.” These are words that are looked up in great numbers every day; because of that perennial volume, the year-over-year increase in “fascism” isn’t as great as it is for some other words. There are essentially two kinds of lookups that we see: high-volume perennials — words that are looked up daily regardless of news or events — and words that spike because of a particular event, story, or utterance.
What would you have liked to see become Word of the Year?
SOKOLOWSKI: Lexicographers make lousy prognosticators. We’re often surprised by what word catches the attention of the public; keep in mind that viewing the news through the prism of vocabulary means that the public’s motivation for looking up a word may have to do with spelling or grammar rather than the idea being expressed: English is complicated. Both “bigly” and “deplorable” spiked, in part, because they were used in rare and unusual ways. Many serious and negative words trended this year because of the bruising nature of the presidential campaign and the deaths of so many beloved artists and public figures, so we put out a call for people to look up words with happier associations or words that are just fun, like “puppy” and “flummadiddle.” Since we’re all word nerds, we’d love for a word about words to catch fire, like “sesquipedalian.”
What have been some of the more fun or exciting developments with language this year?
NATURALE: My favorite discovery this year: One of our lexicographers found evidence of the word “side-eye” in use as early as 1797. Also, 2016 was the year we finally added “hella” to the dictionary. I lived in Oakland just long enough to be excited about that.
What do you want people to know about Merriam-Webster?
SCHNEIDER: We describe language, we don’t prescribe it. People want us to be all sorts of things we’re not, and to lead the charge on language change, but we follow language and are here to observe and report. We take that charge very seriously, and at the same time, we enjoy it immensely. That’s why our Twitter is so good: It’s not a marketing construct. It’s who we really are.