Meet The Woman Behind Merriam-Webster’s Viral Subtweets

Photo: Kelly Prizel.
"Subtweet" is not yet an official entry in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, because it has not met the dictionary's strict usage requirements. That is likely to change this year. Over the course of the past week, the word has been used extensively, both on and offline, in talk about the rise of the alt movement across Twitter. This movement is fueled by accounts such as @RogueNASA and @altUSEPA, which were created in opposition to President Trump's media blackout ruling. But other official accounts have been posting tweets that subtly, but powerfully, undermine political statements. The best example of this is Merriam-Webster's own Twitter account, which has risen to viral status thanks to well-timed definitions. Lauren Naturale, Merriam-Webster's content and social media manager, has been in charge of managing the dictionary's Twitter for about a year. Naturale, 33, says that while her approach to the account's tweets has remained the same, the public response has changed drastically. "Things that shouldn't be politically charged, like the definition of a fact, are being received as if they are politically charged," Naturale says. "But our job is to provide people with accurate definitions. And some of the most interesting things we share on Twitter are the words people are looking up at a given moment." While Merriam-Webster's "word of the day" tweets are decided on weeks ahead of time, its posts about trending searches are the ones making the post impact. Take, for example, the definition of "fact," which was posted on the same day as Kellyanne Conway's much-mocked television interview, in which Conway used the term "alternative facts" to describe false information.
These tweets, though based on trending user look-ups, reveal hypocrisy and draw sharp attention to the actions of the Trump administration. Naturale says that the response to recent tweets has been "overwhelmingly positive" and that many people have said they are subscribing to the Unabridged dictionary, buying a physical copy, or downloading the accompanying app. Before joining Merriam-Webster as their social lead, Naturale taught English at the University of California, Berkeley, while earning her Master's degree. "Running the Twitter for Merriam-Webster feels like all of the fun parts of teaching without any of the grading," she says. Educating the public has taken on new new meaning in the current political climate. The fact that Naturale does so with subtle snark makes Merriam-Webster's posts all the more engaging. The account followed up the definition of "fact" days later with another pertinent response to Conway's "alternative facts" statement:
Other posts require little explanation to get the message across.
What's next for Naturale, and the Merriam-Webster Twitter account, after a rise to subtweeting fame? "The more you learn about language, the more obvious it is that English is constantly changing and that even the rules you really should follow don’t make a lot of sense," Naturale says. "Those complexities make English more interesting, not less. We want to use Twitter to show people how interesting English really is." If pointing out these complexities means exposing holes in statements made by politicians, so be it.

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