I check Twitter mostly to follow sports journalists and snarky celebrities, but some days the animosity on the site makes me think about logging out for good. I’ll never do it, though — I’d miss the dictionary too much. One of my favorite things online is the Merriam-Webster Twitter feed. It’s a perfect combination of humor, information, and topicality.
And before you wonder if it’s just me, a word nerd, who is captivated by Twitter language lessons, as of today @MerriamWebster has 665K followers. We’re treated to classic Word of the Day entries, with the part of speech, pronunciation, and definition, reposted later in the day with a pop culture reference. We also get excellent quizzes, again usually with sly winks. And a couple times a day, we get into what really makes my editor’s heart beat faster: Usage Notes explaining things like “‘Complement” vs. ‘Compliment’” and “Under ‘Duress’ or Under ‘Stress’?” plus Word History posts on the origins of phrases such as “like rats fleeing a sinking ship” and words like “cliff-hanger.”
The posts are uniformly light and clever, but they teach followers something new every day. Until I read the post on “laundry list” I hadn’t noticed that I’ve never actually had to make a list for laundry (it’s always ON my list, but it’s just one word I hope the fairies will come and take care of: “laundry”). But when commercial laundry services started, customers marked a detailed record of what they sent, so similar materials got washed together and the right clothes got back to the right customer. The metaphor of a mundane list has outlived the literal version.
One of the most talked-about features of the Merriam-Webster site is Trend Watch, which reports the most popular lookups. The tweets about these trends acknowledge the news or celebrity event that usually drives the surge in interest, and that can make it seem like the dictionary is throwing shade or being political. But the team behind the account notes that isn’t their intent; they are responding to surges in lookups from the public, which so happen to be prompted often by politics.
Even if the other 664,999 followers are there only for the sharp retorts or the clever gifs, I love the fact that so many people see phonetic spellings and intelligent vocabulary scrolling through their feeds, and that they may even be lured into reading about adverbs by the headline “A Most Fascinating POS.” Smart content that makes me LOL? My word of the day is “thank-you.” (It is one word. As a noun. I looked it up.)