We’re having “a national conversation about language.”
So said Peter Sokolowsky, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster Dictionary, during an interview last week on CBS This Morning.
A national conversation about language? I don’t recall that ever happening before. If you ask me, it couldn’t come at a better time.
When the M-W Dictionary went online in 1996, Sokolowsky explained, it was the first time the dictionary’s curators could see what people were curious about. They’d never before been able to collect data about which words people were looking up.
In the past couple of years we’ve become hyper-aware of fake news, alternative facts, and the ways people use words to twist reality — or accuse others of twisting reality.
The watchers at M-W are doing their part: keeping close tabs on what people are looking up. When United Airlines sought volunteers to give up their seats and then had a passenger dragged off a plane, thousands of people went to the dictionary to look up the meaning of volunteer. Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account took note.
Increasingly, M-W’s tweets themselves have drawn attention.
To Sokolowsky it’s no big deal: “On Twitter, we’re reporting on what people are curious about.”
If sometimes the reporting becomes droll, if sometimes it seems pointed, if sometimes (in the phrasing of one of the CBS interviewers) it veers into being sassy, oh well. That’s the way it goes.
After a good bit of prodding, Sokolowsky asked his interviewers, “Why is copying and pasting words considered subversive?”
Great question! It’s only subversive when people in power are using words to mislead and deceive — in other words, when they’re making propaganda.
M-W is speaking truth to power. If the people in power take umbrage, they’re just affirming what M-W already knows: words matter.
Toward the end of the interview, Sokolowsky admitted that he doesn’t mind being called sassy “as long as we’re sassy and also substantial.”
As our national conversation about language continues, I hope we’ll hear plenty of substance — not just from M-W but from lots of diverse sources. And if the substance comes with a little sass, that’s all right.
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