Amid the controversy over a passenger getting dragged off a United Airlines flight, the dictionary is taking a stand.
On Sunday, video emerged of a passenger getting forcibly pulled off a United Airlines flight by police. The airline said it had asked for volunteers to get bumped off the overbooked flight. The unidentified man refused to get off the plane and was showing screaming as security snatched him out of his seat and dragged him down the aisle.
— Jayse D. Anspach (@JayseDavid) April 10, 2017
United said that the incident was “upsetting to all of us here at United” and apologized “for having to re-accommodate” people.
As that controversy took hold of the internet, dictionary brand Merriam-Webster took a stand, tweeting the definition of the word “volunteer.”
📈'Volunteer' means “someone who does something without being forced to do it.” https://t.co/qNAcMyplhZ
— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) April 11, 2017
It then followed that tweet with this:
📈Lookups for 'volunteer' are up 1900%. https://t.co/qNAcMyplhZ
— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) April 10, 2017
The tweet is drumming up plenty of attention— though the woman behind Merriam Webster’s social media account is no stranger to that.
Meet Lauren Naturale, Merriam-Webster’s 33-year old social media manager. “If anyone ever asks what you can do with an M.A. in English, the answer is apparently “role-play a dictionary on the Internet,” she says.
She is one of the faces transforming a 150-year-old dictionary brand 140-characters at a time. Her posts — at turns sassy, savvy and bookish — have become viral hits, controversial talking points, inspirational poems.
When Americans wouldn’t stop looking up the word “fascism,” Naturale pleaded with them to stop. When President Donald Trump said hombres at the debate, but many heard ombre, she tweeted out a (literally) colorful explanation. She even makes off-color Lord Byron jokes — and gets responses that would make an English teacher blush.
hombre:🚶 a man
ombré: 🌈 having colors or tones that shade into each other #debatenight
— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) October 20, 2016
“I think people respond to the Twitter account because it’s real,” she says, and “relevant to what’s actually going on in people’s lives.” Each day, Naturale reads the news, looks at what people are searching on the site, and tweets about that. “Twitter is fast — and we are, too.”
Naturale is unconventional: She was “obsessed” with the book “Depraved and Insulting English,” about offensive and obscene words, as a teen. She writes lesbian historical fiction. She loves “sensational things to read on trains.”
She’s not the only one who was transformed by the Internet: Barely anyone buys physical copies of dictionaries anymore, with some major publishers like Macmillan having stopped printing them entirely. “The future of the dictionary is digital,” Stephen Bullon, then Macmillan’s education publisher for dictionaries, noted when they stopped printing in 2012. The competition, in other words, is online now, and Merriam-Webster is killing it: The company has gained more than 100,000 Twitter followers in the past year and praise from a variety of media outlets, like the Washington Post, which called it “Twitter’s edgiest dictionary).
She’s also seemingly all wrong for a job where brevity is a must. For the second half of her 20s, she was studying for her PhD in Victorian literature and teaching courses at Berkeley. She had little social media experience, had tried her hand at novel writing, and wrote of a short story she published, “I might have finally learned how to write a story less than 20,000 words long.”
Still, the now-Brooklynite got her job with a tweet. Merriam-Webster posted on Twitter that it needed a social media manager; Naturale direct messaged them with her qualifications and was hired quickly thereafter. “I don’t think I ever would have gotten a call if I’d submitted my resume through a traditional process,” she says. Now, she spends her days online, sometimes until well past midnight.
Naturale may spend her days obsessing over 140-character posts, but her literary past hasn’t left her: She says her favorite post of all time was when she asked people, on the day after the election, to tweet a poem that was important to them. “The country felt very divided, and it seemed like the right time to create a space for people to share art with each other,” she says. “The thread kept going for about a week, and the poems ranged from the incredibly famous to the less well known to ‘this is by a friend of mine.’”
Her teaching experience, too, informs her role now: “You develop a separate ‘teaching persona’ in the same way that you develop a kind of Twitter voice, and in both cases you spend a lot of time trying to find an entertaining way to explain something educational.”
Sometimes those explainers take the form of drawing fan art.
@MerriamWebster Hrútskýra (literally ram explain) in Icelandic 👊🐏
— Védís Ragnheiðar (@VedisR) August 9, 2016
And sometimes she’s the one who learns something herself — like the Icelandic word for mansplaining. “English is weird, and random, and illogical,” she says. “Some of the rules aren’t even true. Those complexities make English more interesting, not less. It’s not a bad life.”
This story was originally published on MarketWatch.
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