Why you should care
Because this is the epitome of 21st-century marketing.
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What with the 3 a.m. tweetstorms, Hamilton tirades and his prodigious use of “Sad!,” President-elect Donald J. Trump kinda won Twitter this year. No matter. We’ve got our eye on the runner-up, which on Monday tweeted a little lexicographical commentary: “‘Surreal’ is one of the most common lookups following a tragedy. ‘Surreal’ is our 2016 Word of the Year.”
Burned by a dictionary! If you use Twitter, chances are you’ve seen @MerriamWebster’s tweets. It has schooled the internet on the status of “bigly” as a word and the fact that “unpresidented” is not. During the second presidential debate, it revealed mass ignorance laid bare: “Note that more people are looking up ‘lepo’ (as in, “What’s a lepo?”) than ‘Aleppo.’ #debate.” Should such semantic activism discomfit you, @MerriamWebster has something to tell you: “No one cares how you feel.”
The person behind the saucy — and sometimes scorching — pedantry is a 33-year-old grad-school dropout and onetime freelance writer who favors claret-colored lipstick: Lauren Naturale. While a team of lexicographers feeds her material, Naturale is the company’s social media manager and the person behind the dictionary’s Twitter edition. Never mind that her personal account has just 701 followers; as @MerriamWebster, she has 200,000. The account has gained about 120,000 of those over the past year — much of it during her tenure — and won accolades besides from wordsmiths at places like The Washington Post (“Twitter’s edgiest dictionary”).
Every day at 7:30 a.m., Naturale shakes herself out of bed in her Sunset Park apartment in Brooklyn and checks for anything early-rising lexicographers may have written about the day’s trending words. Then she heads into the company’s New York office and follows the day’s news as she runs the Twitter account, posting dozens of tweets a day. (Naturale also runs the company’s Instagram and Facebook sites — just not as virally.) There are articles to package and headline and promote. At least a couple of nights a week, Naturale is online until almost midnight.
@MerriamWebster I love it when you’re sassy— Swinby on Snails (@dudeswinburne) December 19, 2016
Some of Naturale’s tweets have picked fights with factions (e.g., those who ask why the company added “genderqueer” to the dictionary); others with people. The victim of her “No one cares how you feel” Twitter assassination-through-comedy was Slate’s senior editor Gabriel Roth. Poetically enough, Roth started the kerfuffle by tweeting that @MerriamWebster’s alleged laxity made him uncomfortable: “[I]s it somehow narcissistically gratifying to them to be the ‘chill’ parent?” Naturale wiped him out with a few words and gave no fucks.
Naturale came to run social media for the internet’s 78th most trafficked site via … Twitter, aptly enough. About a year ago, @MerriamWebster posted the job listing, its first such; Naturale direct-messaged back with her qualifications. She was hired almost on the spot. It might sound “twee,” but the job is “magical,” Naturale says. Merriam-Webster had been searching a month and a half or more beforehand, says Jesse DeWitt, executive director of digital product management. “We kept getting social media–background people applying, but they were missing that spark. They didn’t have an interest in the subject matter.” Naturale is the first to hold this new position.
1) ‘Surreal’ is one of the most common lookups following a tragedy— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) December 19, 2016
2) ‘Surreal’ is our 2016 Word of the Yearhttps://t.co/O7azAyRQC1
She grew up in Medfield, Massachusetts, with a knack for reading and writing. Are you surprised that her mom was a retired copy editor who rattled off the parts of speech to put Naturale to sleep? Her father worked in marketing for a medical software company in Massachusetts. “I’m second-generation marketing now,” she says. As a doctoral student at Berkeley, Naturale focused on 19th-century Victorian and sensational literature, especially novels by Wilkie Collins and George Eliot. During her fifth year of graduate school, her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer and she moved back to New York, freelancing for publications like The Toast and Bitch Media.
Growing up, the family dictionary was American Heritage, one of Merriam-Webster’s primary competitors — and they’re actually more different than you might think. American Heritage is prescriptivist, weighing on how words should be used. Merriam-Webster’s is radically descriptivist, representing words as they are used. “Our approach is that you should know how to use commas correctly, but that’s not the most interesting thing you can say about language,” Naturale says. Her belief in that philosophy is backed by years of studying the titans of 19th-century literature. Authors like Robert Burns, she points out, deliberately wrote in nonstandard, dialectical English to rebel. Charles Dickens used “literally” to mean “figuratively” all the time — it’s not a recently minted error.
It seems that stodginess doesn’t work in the dictionary market. Some two decades ago, the industry saw major layoffs thanks to the internet, which stole business away from yearly print editions, says Allan Metcalf, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society. Publishers moved online and more free dictionaries became available. Readers stopped buying new dictionary editions every few years and headed online for “the latest definition on Merriam-Webster or the latest version of the Oxford English Dictionary,” Metcalf says. Meanwhile, lowfalutin repositories of words, like Jonathan Green’s Dictionary of Slang and Urban Dictionary, gained mainstream popularity.
People keep— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) April 25, 2016
1) saying they don’t know what ‘genderqueer’ means
2) asking why we added it to the dictionary pic.twitter.com/wsGZ7Y6XB8
Social media has of course changed the marketing landscape too. Once the pasture of tech-savvy, freshly unboxed college grads, today you might find the next George Saunders or Amy Schumer tweeting on behalf of a rising corporate behemoth. From Denny’s (333,000 Twitter followers) to Under Armour (764,000 followers), major companies are investing in some serious (or hilarious) writers to shell out 140-character tweets on their behalf. Which can be kind of weird. “It is marketing and not your best pal,” says Grant Barrett, who co-hosts the podcast A Way With Words, on grammar, language and slang. He is nonetheless an avid fan of @MerriamWebster, and so are many of his listeners.
Five days ago, @realDonaldTrump called an action by China “unpresidented.” Shortly afterward, Naturale tweeted: “Good morning! The #WordOfTheDay is … not ‘unpresidented.’” The tweet got 27,000 shares. It was surreal.