In the hours after Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, was silenced by her Republican colleagues for “impugning” a fellow senator by reading aloud a letter Coretta Scott King had written that was critical of Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama (later confirmed as attorney general), thousands of Americans did what they always do: They tapped away at their phones.
But they weren’t checking text messages or liking a photo on Facebook. They were thumbing through online dictionaries, looking for a definition of “impugn.” On Wednesday morning, the dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster posted on its website that searches on the word had surged.
“It’s been at the top for almost 12 hours now,” said Peter Sokolowski, the company’s editor at large.
As he wrote on the Merriam-Webster website: “Impugn means ‘to oppose or attack as false or lacking integrity’ or ‘to criticize (a person’s character, intentions, etc.) by suggesting that someone is not honest and should not be trusted.’ It comes from the Latin word pugnare meaning ‘to fight,’ which is also the root of pugnacious and pugilism.”
A tweet posted to the dictionary’s feed linking to this definition quickly racked up several hundred retweets.
At a time when many are questioning the definition of common words they thought they understood, after years of the English language being degraded by text messages and hashtags, dictionaries have made a surprising comeback in the United States.
On dictionary apps and websites, “lookups” (which, according to Merriam-Webster, is one word) of words or phrases related to news events have precipitously increased. Bibliophiles are becoming social media stars. Sales of print dictionaries remain brisk and are a profit center for some publishers.
“Dictionaries are not regarded as sexy or interesting, but what dictionaries are known for is telling the truth,” said Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer and past president of the American Dialect Society. “Right now there are a lot of questions about what is true. We want clear statements about what things are, and dictionaries provide that.”
The most commonly used dictionaries, whether in print or digital, reflect what is known as “descriptive lexicography,” meaning that editors study the way people use words and determine their meaning based on that evidence.
Social media has been revolutionary in changing the access lexicographers have to the evolution of how words are used. Yet the process of evaluating evidence and writing definitions in a clear and unbiased manner remains the objective, said Katherine Connor Martin, head of American dictionaries at Oxford University Press.
The aim is to provide the most accurate information about where a word comes from, how it is used grammatically and what meaning it conveys. “Our goal is really simple,” she said, “and it contributes to a sense of authoritativeness.”
But some dictionary companies are embracing the personality-driven culture of the digital age to make lexicography more accessible and perhaps drive advertising revenue through clicks. Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com use Twitter and other networks to share “word of the day” features, real-time data about words that are suddenly being searched by large numbers of people and cheeky observations on public figures and their use of language.
Each company has been both criticized and heralded for using pointed words in social media to promote its definitions. For instance, in early February, President Trump posted on Twitter, “Professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters are proving the point of the millions of people who voted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
Later that day, the feed for Dictionary.com posted, “‘Professional anarchists’ falls into our new favorite category: Alternative facts!” It then shared a link to its definition of oxymoron: “A figure of speech by which a locution produces an incongruous, seemingly self-contradictory effect, as in ‘cruel kindness’ or ‘to make haste slowly.’”
On Feb. 6, the company shared a tweet from the president: “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.” The dictionary’s tweet overlaid his words with a definition for paralogize (“to draw conclusions that do not follow logically from a given set of assumptions”), which was Dictionary.com’s word of the day.
The intent is not to be political or partisan, said Lauren Sliter, who runs the marketing department at Dictionary.com and writes the Twitter feed. Juxtaposing current events with unusual words the site is introducing helps demonstrate the relevance and usefulness of an expanded vocabulary, Ms. Sliter said.
Helping to make sense of a president’s message connects to the very purpose of a dictionary, she added. “We have gone from an era of great oratory to an era of great tweets,” she said. But since tweets often lack context and nuance, “things can come off as a little ambiguous and we want to be helpful in clarifying things.”
Merriam-Webster has also been identified as “throwing shade” at politicians, for its posts on surges in lookups for certain words and its word-of-the-day entries. For instance, in late January, as the nation was ensnarled in debates about Mr. Trump’s desire to build a wall at the Mexican border, “barbican” — which means “an outer defensive work; especially: a tower at a gate or bridge” — was the word of the day.
But the dictionary’s comments are often grammatically, not politically, motivated. When Hillary Clinton referred during the campaign to Mr. Trump’s supporters with the phrase “basket of deplorables,” the dictionary reported a spike in lookups of “deplorable” and wrote in a blog post: “‘Deplorable’ is defined by this dictionary as an adjective. Clinton’s use of the word as a noun is rare.”
Mr. Sokolowski, the editor at large, said words of the day were selected months in advance, adding that when the dictionary’s website published posts on “alternative facts” or “Svengali,” it was because people were looking up those words. “The trend watch is apolitical,” he said, but added that “the Twitter feed can be edgy.”
And popular. In the past week, Lauren Naturale, a onetime college English instructor who writes the Merriam-Webster tweets, has become a media darling thanks to her wry and pointed posts, which include playful badinage. When the Twitter feed for the American Civil Liberties Union posted a question to Merriam-Webster asking if usage of the term “whoa” was allowed, she replied, “We don’t include that as a variant, but we’re pretty sure you still have the right to say it.”
On Tuesday, Ms. Naturale helped roll out 1,000 words Merriam-Webster is adding to its online dictionary (the words will make it into the print version eventually). They span the scientific (prosopagnosia) to the culinary (chef’s knife) to the political (Flotus) to the contemporary (photobomb, binge-watch).
To introduce “face palm,” she wrote: “Most common spelling as a verb: face-palm. Most common spelling as a noun: facepalm.” The tweet included an animated GIF demonstrating a man face-palming as part of a new collaboration between Merriam-Webster and Giphy Studios.
“The information we share is relevant in a new way that gets more attention,” Ms. Naturale wrote in an email forwarded by Merriam-Webster’s publicist. “There’s also a sense that we’re increasingly divided, and the dictionary’s role is to help people communicate with each other.”
This is not the only role, of course. Mr. Sheidlower, the lexicographer, said: “In times of stress, people will go to things that will provide answers. The Bible, the dictionary or alcohol.”