Once upon a time, the dictionary was a dusty old tome that sat on a shelf and served one simple purpose: to define words. It was a noble book, neutral by nature, uncontroversial, and therefore trusted and respected by everyone.
But all of that is changing.
Thanks to Twitter and Trump, America’s dictionary, Merriam-Webster, has transformed itself into a social media troll, regularly courting controversy by mocking the President.
For months, the dictionary’s editors have fired not-so-subtle shots at Trump and his administration, and publications of every political persuasion have noticed, running headlines with the same four words: “Merriam-Webster trolls Trump.”
What exactly is “trolling?” According to Merriam-Webster, to troll means “to antagonize (others) online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant or offensive comments or other disruptive content.”
So is that what the dictionary is doing? And if so, shouldn’t we all be a bit concerned?
It definitely looks like trolling: The folks at Merriam-Webster have regularly ridiculed Trump for his every spelling mistake, grammatical error, and verbal gaffe. In honor of the election, they changed their header photo to a picture of a German word defined as the “collapse of a society or regime marked by catastrophic violence and disorder.”
They later highlighted what they claimed was their most popular look-up, the word “fascism.”
On Inauguration Day, they simply tweeted “Welp,” a word used to convey dismay or disappointment. When they announced they were adding 1,000 new words, they emphasized one in particular: snollygoster, “a shrewd and unprincipled person, especially an unprincipled politician.”
They’ve needled Betsy DeVos, taunted Sean Spicer, derided Steve Bannon, and stung Kellyanne Conway not once but twice. Most notably, when Conway said she struggles to call herself a feminist because it’s “anti-male and pro-abortion,” a widely-held perception, Merriam-Webster fired back a definition of feminism as simply “the belief that men and women should have equal rights.”
The list goes ever on. Make no mistake, Merriam-Webster has become a political machine.
Of course, that’s not all they are. They’ve made the dictionary look cool, hip and modern. Often, they make the job of lexicography actually look fun. And they’ll tweet about everything from the weather to the World Series to the Oscars.
But when it comes to making fun of politicians, the dictionary’s editors are clearly partisan. They didn’t harass Hillary Clinton, and they don’t needle sports stars, celebrities, or, well . . . anyone else like they needle the President and his people.
Theoretically, even that could be okay—a good, playful, occasional joke from the dictionary could have the whole country laughing. But if you mock one person too often, you start to reveal a pattern. If that pattern persists, the fun and games lose their light-hearted feel, and begin to betray bias instead.
Already, the dictionary’s string of frequent, focused stings feel less like jokes and more like subtle, systematic attacks. In other words, it’s easy to read between the dictionary’s lines: they don’t like Trump and they’re not afraid to show it.
If Merriam-Webster’s editors aren’t careful, though, they will undermine the very thing that makes their dictionary useful. An accusation of bias is (or should be) a death sentence for a dictionary. All the clever jokes in the world won’t save Merriam-Webster from a widespread perception of political partisanship—and promptly cost them half of their readers.
First, they’ll lose the trust of Trump supporters, then the respect of everyone on the Right, and finally all the folks on the Left, even those who despise Trump the most.
That’s because conservatives and liberals alike will reject as too Orwellian a dictionary perceived as politically charged. It will simply be too hard to convince people that cultural or political bias hasn’t seeped into and soiled the dictionary’s definitions. When it comes to lexicography, credibility depends on impartiality.
Regardless of their political opinions, Americans still expect the dictionary to be objective and neutral, even more than they expect that from the media. So at a time when trust and confidence in America’s mainstream media is practically nonexistent, why would Merriam-Webster even flirt with the appearance of partisanship?
If even the dictionary loses its objectivity, it means politics in America has become entirely inescapable. That’s not just dangerous, it’s sad. It’s unhealthy. It’s not good for a society to be so permeated with politics that there is nowhere to hide.
Of course, Merriam-Webster has every right to do what it wants to do. They can turn themselves into a source of political news, comedy, and commentary if they wish. But America already has enough of that. What America really needs, now more than ever, is something solid that everyone trusts and everyone respects. The dictionary used to have that kind of quiet power. Not anymore.