The Trump presidency will end in calamity. By definition.
I know this because the Merriam-Webster dictionary says so. When John Dean of Watergate fame predicted “calamity” for Donald Trump’s presidency, Merriam-Webster’s official account tweeted about the prognostication, adding its definition: “an event that causes great harm and suffering.”
If you are unaccustomed to finding such information in the dictionary, you haven’t been keeping up with the new Merriam-Webster, which has been throwing the book – definition: “to punish (someone) as severely as possible” – at Trump.
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After Trump won the election, the dictionary announced that “lookups for ‘misogyny’ spiked after Trump’s victory” – and illustrated the tweet with a photo of Tic Tacs, a reference to Trump’s on-camera boasting about sexual assault.
Merriam-Webster has shown that a word can be worth 50,000 retweets, as when it responded to Conway’s “alternative facts” remark by saying: “A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality.” After Conway said she was uncomfortable being called a feminist, Merriam-Webster tweeted: “ ‘Feminism’ is defined as ‘the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.’ ”
When there were claims that outsiders were brought in to applaud Trump’s appearance at the CIA, the dictionary tweeted: “If you’re part of a group that’s paid to applaud, you’re a ‘claqueur’.” After reports last week that Ivanka Trump was joining the administration, Merriam-Webster chimed in: “’Nepotism’ is our #15 lookup right now.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer used his fingers to argue that Trump didn’t mean “wiretap” literally, prompting the dictionary to report that it has entries for “air quotes” and “scare quotes.” FBI Director James B. Comey was reported to be “incredulous” upon hearing Trump’s wiretapping allegations, spurring Merriam-Webster to tweet the definition and to report that “lookups for ‘refute’ are spiking.”
And who might the lexicographers have had in mind a month ago when they reported that they added back to the dictionary the word “snollygoster, ‘a shrewd & unprincipled person, especially an unprincipled politician’ ”?
This once-staid outfit – who buys a dictionary anymore? – has earned itself a large and devoted following on social media, and no wonder: Trump is literally being trolled by the dictionary.
The lexicographers generally aren’t doing anything more nefarious than defining terms in the news and reporting what words people are looking up at merriam-webster.com. “Our goal is to tell the truth about words,” says Peter Sokolowski, editor at large. But because they are the last word on words, their tweets take on added authority. It is as if Trump is being repudiated by the laws of gravity, or getting dressed down by Mother Nature herself:
“ ‘Complicit’ is still near the top of our lookups after (“Saturday Night Live”) used the word to describe Ivanka Trump.”
“We’re seeing a spike in lookups for ‘neophyte.’ Rep. Devin Nunes used the word to describe the U.S. president.”
“’Rescind’ is trending from Trump’s decision to rescind protections for transgender students.”
Words, like facts, have absolute meanings and spellings, despite Trump’s efforts to revise both. After he tweeted a year ago about the “great honer” of winning a debate poll and called a rival a “leightweight chocker,” Merriam-Webster helpfully tweeted: “Honer: one that hones. Leightweight: We have no. idea.” For “chocker” it linked to the definition of “nope.”
Trump, during the campaign, boasted, “I have the best words.” But lexicographers have better ones, and they can be subversive about which they choose to highlight, such as when they report that “fascism is still our #1 lookup,” or, in reference to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, “lookups for ‘recuse’ are up 45,000%.” After former national security adviser Michael Flynn sought an agreement to testify in the Russia probe, Merriam-Webster reported that “immunity” was trending.
It advised Trump that “ ‘big league’ is rarely used as an adverb” and reported that “ombre” is not the same as “hombre.” Merriam-Webster reminded the White House that Holocaust refers especially to Jews after it issued a Holocaust remembrance statement that omitted any mention of Jews. At one low moment for Trump, Merriam-Webster tweeted that “schadenfreude” is “a popular lookup on our site.”
No doubt Trump and his supporters will view this as politically correct language; “fake words” can join “fake news” in their disfavor. But I see it as a public service. The way Trump prevails is by obscuring the truth, denying the facts and redefining meaning.
This is the truth fighting back, and eventually it will prevail.
It’s ineluctable. (Look it up.)
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.