People who spend enough time on Twitter know that eventually, if they stick around long enough, hundreds of strangers will yell at them for fun. It’s the bargain you make when you sign up! And yet I have to acknowledge that I never expected my humiliation would come at the hands of a popular brand of dictionary.
Merriam-Webster is the company that publishes the widely used Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Its editors characterize their approach as “descriptivist,” which means they aim to reflect language as it exists, rather than to lay down the law, usage-wise. That orientation leads them to take a variety of admirable, progressive stances on lexicographic issues.
Take a look, for instance, at the entry for their in the company’s online dictionary. Merriam-Webster gives two definitions. The first is the uncontroversial use of their as it might appear in Slate or the New York Times:
1: of or relating to them or themselves especially as possessors, agents, or objects of an action <their furniture> <their verses> <their being seen>
With the second definition we see Merriam-Webster’s descriptivist boundary-pushing at work, as the dictionary endorses the use of their as a gender-neutral singular equivalent of “his or her.”
2: his or her : his, her, its —used with an indefinite third person singular antecedent <anyone in their senses — W. H. Auden>
Slate’s copy editors forbid this usage (over my strong and borderline-unprofessional public objections). How fearless, how forward-looking of the editors at Merriam-Webster to include it!
There’s a limit, though. Lots of English-speakers use their in a third sense: as an alternate spelling of they’re.
For all its broad-mindedness, its noisy pledges of fealty to language-as-it-is-used, Merriam-Webster somehow fails to include this common usage.
There’s a lesson there about authority: Even when it’s doing its best to come off as chill, sometimes it has to put its foot down.
* * *
The trouble began on Tuesday evening, when my eye was caught by a tweet from the @MerriamWebster account:
It's fine to use mad to mean "angry"—even if doing so makes some people mad. https://t.co/Z5ClzvAnaZ— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) September 7, 2016
This is a typical tweet from Merriam-Webster, which likes to show off its descriptivist approach. Most famously, in April the account posted this all-time great tweet, an elegant rejoinder to conservatives moaning about the word genderqueer:
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
The team that runs the account is quick, clever, alive to the fast-moving conventions of online discourse. And I am all for descriptivism! I have no truck with hidebound rules. I believe that language evolves, and that a 2016 dictionary that doesn’t include genderqueer is failing as a dictionary.
And yet something about @MerriamWebster’s flaunting of its progressive credentials had begun to rub me the wrong way. The “use mad to mean ‘angry’ ” tweet, in particular, seemed lame, like a dad trying to sound cool by talking about the new Mumford and Sons album. Who doesn’t use mad to mean angry?
So I tweeted about it. Or rather, I started tweeting about it and then got sidetracked and started tweeting about something else, and then tried feebly to return to the original topic.
It's great at first, it's nice to have friends and a place to get high, but something about it starts to feel wrong— Gabriel Roth (@gabrielroth) September 7, 2016
If no one's making rules for us, it means we're responsible for our own decisions, and we feel kind of ambivalent about that tbqh— Gabriel Roth (@gabrielroth) September 7, 2016
Sometimes we need totally arbitrary and unfair rules and fuck you mom no one ever died from smoking pot it's actually safer than alcohol— Gabriel Roth (@gabrielroth) September 7, 2016
Are they really enlightened + freethinking, or just checked out? is it somehow narcissistically gratifying to them to be the "chill" parent?— Gabriel Roth (@gabrielroth) September 7, 2016
or dictionary, I guess, in this case— Gabriel Roth (@gabrielroth) September 7, 2016
The next morning, whoever runs the @MerriamWebster account decided to respond to my muddled little tweetstorm like this:
Take a look at the retweet count. And the favs! Thousands and thousands of people, delighted at the fact that no one cares how I feel. In my Twitter mentions, people calling me “an abjectly disgusting creature” compete for space with people earnestly setting me straight about descriptivism. And still they pour in, letting me know that I got burnt or told or owned. “Wow, lots of folks here looking for blood,” as one onlooker put it.
On the scale of Twitter eruptions, this was big but mild. And, hey, we learned something, right? This was a fun day. Some new followers (hi new followers!) plus thousands of strangers laughing at me. Lots of fun. No one cares how I feel! Good one. See, I can laugh at myself.
Although, since we’re here, can I ask: What was the nature of this "own"? Was it a clever put-down? I don’t think it was. Coming from some rando, “No one cares how you feel” would hardly merit an RT count in the five figures.
No, the tweet’s power comes from the way it jars with the identity of its author—just as “Delete your account” is a banality until one presidential candidate tweets it at another. It’s not the words, it’s the shock of seeing them attributed to a well-known brand with 118,000 followers that’s usually associated with school and spelling.
As I survey the wreckage of my mentions, I find myself wistfully remembering the days when tweeting at brands was a safe, innocuous pastime. The brand is so much bigger than you, after all, that you can’t imagine it will hear you. Even if the brand were to become aware of your zingers, like a horse irked by a gnat, you assume it won’t turn on you—because, you believe, the brand is prevented by commercial imperatives from acting like a dick in public.
Merriam-Webster’s epic pwnage of me this week has revealed that sense of security for the fabrication that it is. It turns out that an aggressive, forward-looking brand—a venerable-but-staid brand that has turned to social media to add a bit of edginess to its image, perhaps—can indeed act like a dick in public, and will be rewarded with thousands of retweets, with celebratory gifs, with a BuzzFeed post chronicling its “iconic drag.” (Half a million views and still trending.) I worry that some previously unrecognized equilibrium has been toppled, and we’re about to enter a late-late-capitalist dystopia in which brands roam the internet taking down civilians for fun. And when that day comes, we’ll look back on @MerriamWebster’s tweet and rue our LOLs, but it will be too late.