As the industry struggles, these thirsty dictionary empires battle peppily for online dominance.
If these books could tweet.CreditTony Luong for The New York Times
Back in February 2016, the Merriam-Webster Twitter account began gunning for the presidential candidate Donald J. Trump.
It corrected his misspellings. It weighed in on his use of the term "big league" during a debate. After the election, when Kellyanne Conway introduced the idea of "alternative facts," it piped up with the definition of "fact." It expressed itself as you might expect an animate dictionary would: gently correcting the administration's usage errors.
Merriam-Webster had about 80,000 followers on Twitter when Lauren Naturale, now 35, took over the account the month before.
By the time she left, in May 2017, Merriam-Webster's account had about 445,000 followers. Ms. Naturale won three Webby awards for her work and was featured in Entertainment Weekly's Best of 2016 list.
By bringing the dictionary into line with other playful brand accounts in industries as disparate as fast food, tires and telecommunications, she succeeded at what she says her boss, Lisa Schneider, the dictionary's first chief digital officer, had asked her to do: Get people to pay attention on Twitter. Other dictionaries took note.
But not everyone at Merriam-Webster appreciated Ms. Naturale's Trump-trolling tweets. Even as the account drew a surge of positive attention from the media, Ms. Naturale was barred, for months, from publicly revealing that she was behind it. When she did begin to grant interviews, they were conducted by email so that the message could be carefully controlled.
She said Ms. Schneider told her multiple times that a change in the direction of the feed was needed and implied that Ms. Naturale was trying to advance her own personal political agenda. She quit in part because, she said, Ms. Schneider was upset by the idea that Merriam-Webster was being seen as a politically progressive dictionary.
"Every time we were in the news it was a new crisis," Ms. Naturale said. "It was treated like it was a disaster for the company."
Ms. Schneider said that her main concern was brand conformity. "As many companies do, we expect our social media feeds to represent Merriam-Webster and our brand values," she said, "and not any single individual." She said that the account's voice had been consistent "through various changes in personnel." (Ms. Schneider also sent over the first two definitions of the word progressive. "I would certainly categorize Merriam-Webster as progressive," she wrote. "We are constantly observing the new ways in which the English language is used, and reporting on such use in a fact-based, objective, and unbiased manner.")
It's largely true that, since Ms. Naturale left, Merriam-Webster's feed has not undergone a noticeable change. In fact, the brand's outspokenness has proved to be contagious. Dictionary.com, the online reference site owned by IAC (though perhaps not for long?), has also begun to tap out political tweets — and theirs are often far more direct.
Lauren Sliter, who oversees the site's marketing and content strategy, said the company had not taken social media seriously until about a year and a half ago. She first started to understand how her team could work off the news after President Trump was inaugurated and Dictionary.com saw a spike in searches for the word "misogynist."
"Being able to go into a forum like Twitter and tell that story, let people connect those dots, was a really interesting thing," Ms. Sliter said.
The account now has about 276,000 followers to Merriam-Webster's 684,000 and, these days, is quick to comment on current events. After "Roseanne" was canceled late last month because of a tweet its star had sent, Dictionary.com had opinions.
"Watch out Merriam-Webster," one user responded. "You've got some competition for 'Best Dictionary Twitter Shade.'"
Their tweets, which are sourced from Dictionary.com, are not always as reliable as one might hope a dictionary would be.
The Ambien tweet relies on an inaccurate supposition. Ambien's maker, Sanofi, says the name is a combination of "a.m.," as in morning, and "bien," from the French word for good.
Ms. Sliter acknowledges that her company's Twitter strategy is similar to Merriam-Webster's, though she says that Dictionary.com is more self-deprecating, and more focused on talking about the news and trends.
So ... do the two dictionaries get along?
"We're definitely not mortal enemies," she said. "I think that we're kind of like compatriots in a way. We're working together, we're doing very similar things."
Ms. Schneider said that while imitation was the sincerest form of flattery, she didn't think the two accounts were comparable. Merriam-Webster, she said, has "more rigor."
Grant Barrett, a former lexicographer for the Oxford and Cambridge University presses and a host of the radio show "A Way With Words," agreed with Ms. Schneider. He said that Ms. Naturale had done a good job of capturing the wry, dry way dictionary editors joke with one another and that, by contrast, Dictionary.com's tweets were often "too on the nose."
John Cheney-Lippold, a professor of American culture at the University of Michigan who specializes in digital media, said that dictionaries had a particular interest in promoting their brands since President Trump catalyzed a post-truth news environment.
"They are trying valiantly to reassert themselves as the epistemic chiefs of the world," he said.
There's another reason that dictionaries have taken to tweeting. Their industry, wedged between the fast-shifting media and publishing industries, has been struggling.
"Dictionaries, to be frank, are not one of the hot brands that you think of when you think of brands," said Kory Stamper, the author of "Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries" and a former employee of Merriam-Webster. (She left in March.) "No one names Apple, Google, Merriam-Webster. The dictionary industry itself is shrinking, so the more brand awareness you can get the better."
Not all dictionaries have leapt into the fray. The Oxford English Dictionary still tweets like, um, a dictionary. The Oxford Dictionaries account is comparatively restrained, as is the American Heritage dictionary.
"It's hard to show nuance in a 280-word tweet," said Steve Kleinedler, editor at large at American Heritage. Asked if there was any thought given to competing with Merriam-Webster, he said, "No. Our focus was on the editorial project."
One reason American Heritage does not have to worry overmuch about its social presence is that it does not sell ads on its site, so driving traffic is less important for its bottom line. On the other hand, as Ms. Naturale put it, "Dictionary.com and Merriam are locked in an S.E.O. battle to the death. Whoever shows up in the top of Google search results is the dictionary that people are going to click on."
Ms. Schneider said that Merriam-Webster was a profitable publisher — "which is quite an achievement" — and noted that it had won several Webby awards in 2017. But Ms. Stamper is not sure how much the online acclaim matters. She pointed out that Merriam-Webster had lost a significant number of editors over the last four years.
"You're engaging more people, but is that translating to sales?" she asked. "I don't know."