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How Dictionary.com’s Twitter account got so cleverly woke

We spoke with Dictionary.com’s social media team, which has a lot more to say than just what words mean.

How Dictionary.com’s Twitter account got so cleverly woke
[Photos: Nastco/iStock; Flickr user David Goehring]

Language is freedom. One of the more insidious aspects of the dystopian hellscape glimpsed in Orwell’s 1984 is the limited Newspeak with which its residents must express themselves. Frankly, it’s a double-plus bad way of life. As copies of 1984 started flying off digital shelves at a rapid clip after the 2016 election, Dictionary.com began perfecting its approach to celebrating–and illuminating–the way we use words.

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The website’s Twitter account now goes far beyond vocabulary-building blasts, seizing instead on words embedded in the public discourse–and expounding on not only their meaning but the intent behind them.

The social team at Dictionary.com didn’t plan out an elaborate strategy to becoming more socially woke. They merely started applying their voice to the trending topics of each day, and their voice came out sounding this way.

“Our decision to become more active on Twitter was a direct response to how our users were engaging with us,” says Lauren Sliter, who oversees the site’s marketing and content strategy. “We saw a need for clarification on language that we hadn’t seen before, and we wanted to be involved in those conversations.”

The site had a long relationship with words corresponding to current events. It’s how they’ve traditionally narrowed down the Word of the Year choices. (“Complicit” took the crown in 2017, to give you an idea.) It wasn’t until the 2016 presidential debates, though, that the team really registered the level of interest on social media in the words that were trending because of political discourse and other current events. Since then, they’ve purposely adapted their social strategy to include words and meanings that have taken hold for whatever reason, whether it’s from a political gaffe, Beyoncé using the word “FUPA,” or weird Twitter fads like the “In this house, we . . .” meme.

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“We aim to provide [Twitterers] context and a deeper understanding of the words they see being used by celebrities, by news organizations, even by their own friends and family,” says social media editor Jeanne Sager, who came on board to manage the account in April 2017 and now does the majority of the tweeting.

Commenting on current events helps Dictionary.com be more service-y, explaining suddenly ubiquitous words like “incel” to users who may have only just heard them that day. Other times, Dictionary.com might define a word just to lightly clown on Donald Trump for seeming to not quite know it, as they did when he fumbled with the expression “con job” during a rambling press conference on Wednesday. Perhaps most interesting, though, is Dictionary.com’s way of slyly commenting on the issues of the day without actually offering a comment–just a carefully selected definition. They defined the word “stormed,” for instance, when it was used in an unflattering way to describe Monica Lewinsky’s actions in a widely circulated Time magazine article. (The subsequent outrage eventually led Time to change “stormed” to “walked.”)

“I think the words we choose to use say a lot about us,” Sliter says. “They reveal the biases we all have. And so, as a dictionary, it’s important that we not only share the literal meanings of words, but also the connotations word choice can have. Words have meanings beyond their literal definitions, and where we have that information, it is our responsibility to share it.”

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Dictionary.com has also been known to tweet out a definition that isn’t one of the keywords used in a trending story, but rather a one-word takeaway the team wants to impart on its followers. When actor Geoffrey Owens was photographed while working at his side job at Trader Joe’s earlier this month, and some news outlets seemed to shame him by breathlessly reporting that fact, Dictionary.com tweeted out the definition of “classicism.”

“How we talk about an issue in the news may not come down to whether or not a word has been used correctly but what words we can use to talk about a situation,” Sager says. “When it came to reporting on Geoffrey Owens, people were talking about how to describe what had happened to him. We defined “classism” to provide a window into a new word that some people might apply to the situation.”

There’s no rigid protocol for deciding which news pegs to use, or which way to comment on it. Sager and Sliter aim for news stories that have a true tie to language, whether it’s a word being used incorrectly or in an interesting way, or perhaps people searching for the right words to use to keep the conversation going.

Almost no topic is off limits. Generally, the only discussions they make a point to stay away from are ones where being too prescriptive about language would seem inappropriate to the situation.

“During tragedy, especially soon after tragedy, people should use whichever words help them cope and heal,” Sliter says. “It is not a time for us to be inserting our own words, regardless of how related they may be.”

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Other than that minor guideline, the team follows its muse wherever it might lead them, whether it’s underscoring an important political point or chiming in on a viral tweet of the week.

Occasionally, people tweet complaints at the account for being “too political,” an inevitable outcome of saying just about anything that acknowledges current events in these polarized times. There’s never been any real uproar, though; no calls for Dictionary.com to get “cancelled.” Sager and Sliter have waded this far into topical waters without ever having to delete a tweet for any reason other than typos.

Since things don’t look to be getting any less confusing anytime soon, you can expect Dictionary.com’s woke, joke-making streak to continue. Is there a word for when a public service is simultaneously informative, important, plugged in, and just a little bit silly? If there were, there’s at least one outlet that would find a fun way to define it.

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