White House counselor Kellyanne Conway coined a new term this weekend: “alternative facts.” And the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a 186-year-old authority on English language use, had to weigh in.
Conway claimed in a television appearance last Sunday that the new White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, was merely presenting “alternative facts” when he said the crowd at Donald Trump’s inauguration “was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.”
According to Merriam-Webster, “Lookups for 'fact' spiked after Kellyanne Conway described false statements as 'alternative facts'.”
Which led the dictionary’s official Twitter account to send this tweet:
A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality. https://t.co/gCKRZZm23c— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) January 22, 2017
It now has more than 47,000 retweets and more than 59,000 likes.
Two days later, the account doubled down on its defense of “facts”:
*whispers into the void* In contemporary use, fact is understood to refer to something with actual existence. https://t.co/gCKRZZm23c— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) January 24, 2017
The “facts” tweets aren’t the first time @MerriamWebster has spoken up about current events. The account sent this message after the final presidential debate last year, after Trump described many undocumented immigrants as “bad hombres”:
Vox recently spoke via email with the woman behind the dictionary’s Twitter account, Lauren Naturale. Naturale, who's been at her job since early 2016, told us about the thinking behind the bold choices made in 140 characters or less. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When I told people I was going to interview you, everyone was excited to learn more about the person behind the Merriam-Webster dictionary Twitter account. People know and love this account, and it’s not just word nerds. So how does one get this job?
I actually applied on Twitter: Merriam-Webster tweeted that there was an opening for a social media manager, I messaged them with my qualifications, they told me to send a résumé, and I ended up here. It gives me hope for social media, because I don’t think I ever would have gotten a call if I’d submitted my résumé through a traditional process — I’d spent the second half of my 20s teaching college English, not working in social media.
So if anyone ever asks what you can do with an MA in English, the answer is apparently, “Role-play a dictionary on the internet.”
The dictionary’s account was in the news again recently. The account tweeted the dictionary’s article about “alternative facts” as a trending topic, and the tweet text language included the definition of a fact. The tweet now has more than 47,000 retweets and more than 59,000 likes. What’s the story behind sending that tweet?
The “fact” tweet was part of our Trend Watch feature, which we've been running since 2010. When a lot of people are looking up a word at a rate higher than usual, in a way that's related to an event, we share that trend and try to add some additional information on the word's meaning and how it was used. Four people were involved in writing and editing the “fact” article, and none of us felt like we shouldn’t report the story — choosing not to report that trend would have been much more political than continuing as we always have. If you don't believe that words matter, why are you consulting a dictionary?
How would you describe that overall tone of the account?
It reflects the personalities of the people who work here: wildly enthusiastic about language, jokey, friendly, but nobody’s fool. There’s also a kind of egalitarianism-without-anti-intellectualism which has been part of Merriam-Webster’s identity since before Twitter was invented. That’s the idea that the editors here have specialized knowledge and training — they’re experts — but they know that it’s their job to be experts and that it doesn’t make them better than people in other fields, who know all kinds of things we don’t know. Smart people are curious about the world, and smart people are curious about the other people who live in that world. Our Twitter reflects that attitude.
And how would you describe the dictionary’s audience on Twitter?
The account is for everyone, because the English language is for everyone. Period. We’d like to cheerfully kill till it’s dead the idea that everyone knows what a word nerd looks like. The best days are when you see people from a variety of backgrounds, who probably disagree on all sorts of things, coming together to exchange knowledge or geek out on some aspect of language. That doesn’t always happen, but it’s exciting when it does.
I like the goal of getting people excited about language. With that in mind, what’s the process of sending a tweet on your end?
English is weird, and random, and illogical — but it’s mostly taught as a set of rules, and some of those rules aren’t even true. Few, if any, usage guides object to the use of done to mean finished, but plenty of people will correct you if you make this “mistake.” The more you learn about language, the more obvious it is that English is constantly changing and that even the rules you really should follow don’t make a lot of sense. Those complexities make English more interesting, not less. So everything we post to Twitter has to answer the question, “How can we show people how interesting English really is?”
We also offer commentary on words in a way that’s relevant to what’s actually going on in people’s lives. So a lot of what we post is determined by what words are in the news and what’s being looked up on a specific day.
As someone who works on an engagement team, I know how much effort can go into social posts. Is there a tweet that you or your team is most proud of?
I love this poetry thread that emerged the day after the election. The country felt very divided, and it seemed like the right time to create a space for people to share art with each other. The thread kept going for about a week, and the poems ranged from the incredibly famous to the less well-known to “this is by a friend of mine.”
And my boss started an epic emoji thread before I was hired that still might be one of the best things we’ve ever done.
palate : (sense of taste)— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) September 14, 2015
palette : (range of colors)
pallet : (temporary bed)
weather : ☔️ (the state of the atmosphere)— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) September 17, 2015
whether : ⊃ (—used to indicate choices or possibilities)
wether : (castrated male sheep)
principal : (person in charge of a school)— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) September 23, 2015
principal : (capital sum earning interest)
principle : (a comprehensive, fundamental law)
decent : (adequate, satisfactory)— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) September 30, 2015
descent : (an inclination downward)
dissent : ✊ (political opposition to a government or its policies)