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When lexicography is a political act

Merriam-Webster’s ‘trending now’ words: the vocabulary of a new era in Washington.

Senator Elizabeth Warren questions Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen as she testifies before a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on the 'Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to the Congress' on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., on Feb. 14, 2017.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters
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  • Ruth Walker

I’m sitting here trying to imagine Samuel Johnson on Twitter, and it’s not quite working. The great lexicographer and the social networking service would seem to be at opposite ends of the gravitas scale, for one thing.

For at least one set of Johnson’s intellectual heirs, though, the story is different.

Merriam-Webster has been making a (new) name for itself over the past year with a stream of tweets and online offerings that seem “ripped from the headlines” – because they are. 

M-W has been posting a list of top five terms “trending now,” as measured by spikes in lookups in the company’s online dictionary. 

Here they are, as I write:

Impugn, as in “The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague.” This is a reference to the silencing in the US Senate chamber of Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts. 

M-W notes that impugn shares a Latin root, pugnare, “to fight,” with pugnacious and pugilism. Impugn means “to oppose or attack as false or lacking integrity” or to attack someone’s character. When there is impugning, it is often of “motives,” as here.

Bodega, “a usually small grocery store in an urban area.” This one spiked when Yemeni-owned bodegas in New York shut down to protest the new administration’s immigration ban. Who knew there were that many Yemeni-owned bodegas? And from a lexicographical perspective, who knew bodega – a Spanish cousin of our English apothecary and the French import boutique – had broadened sufficiently in meaning to refer to any small urban grocery, not just one with a Latin accent?

Calamity, “an event that causes great harm and suffering.” Lookups spiked after John Dean used the term to predict how the current administration will end. A former White House counsel to Richard Nixon, he speaks with some credibility.

Betrayal. This is the noun form of a verb meaning, among other things, “to deliver to an enemy by treachery” or “to fail or desert especially in time of need.” Lookups spiked after the new president said the acting attorney general he fired for refusing to enforce his immigration ban had “betrayed” his administration. 

Svengali, “A person who manipulates or exerts excessive control over another.” Svengali, an evil hypnotist, was a character in “Trilby,” an 1894 novel by George Du Maurier. Lookups spiked after The New York Times expressed editorial concern that one of the president’s advisers is “positioning himself not merely as a Svengali but as the de facto president.” 

Is Merriam-Webster out to “get” the president, as only lexicographers could?

Some observers say yes. An NPR piece in January was headlined, “The Merriam-Webster Dictionary Has Been Trolling Trump On Twitter For Months.” 

Exhibit A: A tweet, issued after the phrase “alternative facts” entered the national vocabulary, reminding the public of the definition of “fact.”

Facts matter, and so do words. Good for Merriam-Webster for continuing to remind us.