How Merriam-Webster stays relevant in national conversations

Ever found yourself at a loss for words? Merriam-Webster is here to help.

The company, founded in 1831, is keeping up with the times. It provides its dictionary for free online, receives about 100 million views every month and constantly tracks what’s trending. Its Twitter following, which has grown immensely, often makes sly commentary on the news; just last week, the dictionary took aim at United Airlines over its violent removal of a passenger by tweeting the definition of “volunteer” as “someone doing something without force.”

Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large, Peter Sokolowski, joined “CBS This Morning” to explain how the company is staying relevant in the national conversation around language through data, calling out public figures for incorrect word usage, and adding modern entries like “throw shade.”

“People turn to us very naturally when a public figure uses language in a remarkable way. So, for example, with ‘volunteer,’ that was a statement from United that we could report upon. We’re reporting the data from the 100 million page views a month. We could see the word ‘volunteer’ had spiked to the top and so that we know what people are curious about by virtue of what they are looking up online,” Sokolowski explained.  

The dictionary, which is still in print, debuted online in 1996 and Sokolowski noted that it was “the first time we could see what people were actually curious about.”

“We’re reporting the truth about words. That’s sort of what we’ve always done with the definitions, now we can do it with the data,” he said.

Even in instances like March 24, when Republican leaders were discussing repealing Obamacare and Merriam-Webster’s word of the day was “nightmare,” Sokolowski insisted, “There is no editorializing.” He explained the word was chosen before that day. It was a “total coincidence.”

When Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said she didn’t identify as a feminist because it’s associated with being “anti-male and ... pro-abortion,” Merriam-Webster tweeted the definition of feminism as simply, “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.”

“That’s the definition. That was a great example of an instance where a public figure raised the question of meaning,” Sokolowski said. “But we did see in the data that people were checking. People were checking. They looked up feminism.”

Ivanka Trump on what it means to be "complicit"

Referring to Ivanka Trump’s interview with “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King, Sokolowski said, “For example, ‘complicit’ — again the question of meaning was raised. And so where do you go? The dictionary has a kind of unique authority.”

As far as new words go, Sokolowski said, “That’s an old story, that’s still the same slow process of lexicography. The job of a dictionary maker is revision.”

The criteria for adding new words like “net neutrality,” “binge-watch” or “photobomb” has three criteria: widespread usage in different publications, established long-term use, and meaningful usage.  

As for King’s comment that Merriam-Webster is sassy, Sokolowski responded, “As long as we’re sassy and also substantial.”