When lexicography is a political act

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

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
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.

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.