How Language Trends are Reflecting Societal Changes

This is part 3 of a 3-part interview series with Liz McMillan, CEO of Dictionary.com. We sat down together at the Collision Conference in New Orleans to discuss the importance of language, meaning, and truth that words give to our human culture.

Are people still as curious about meaning and language, even against a backdrop of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ from public figures and institutions? Is the information overload and media saturation we face starting to have an influence on our attachment to authenticity, or are we just as intellectually probing, but in a different way?

What can we do to protect ourselves and the notion of truth when faced with a new – and often confusing – landscape?

In our conversation, Liz and I spoke about how we can track language trends, as society goes through unrelenting periods of upheaval and change, and how Dictionary.com uses data to interpret language and the intent behind searches, which can often be reflected in national conversation or online discourse at the time.

On analyzing searches on Dictionary.com

Liz: So, the first thing that flew off the page was that some of our most commonly looked up words are things like, beautiful, good, help. Happy! And I’m thinking, “Why the hell are people looking up these words? We all know what those words mean.” So, that gave me a lot of pause. I wondered, “Okay, what do we do with that? What does that mean? And how do we use that insight to get smarter about how people are using our product and what problems they’re trying to solve for? How do we become more helpful?”

With these questions in mind, we started to notice, looking at our trending data, that things would happen in the world, and certain word lookups would spike.

Courtney: There’s a connection?

Liz: There IS a connection there, and, I guess, in some ways it should have been obvious. If there’s a headline, and enough people read it, they want to understand what it means.

Courtney: So what does “covfefe” mean?

Liz: [Laughing] Of course, there’s that one. But this is where we have a lot of fun. Imparting its meaning through the creativity of our work is how we communicate our vantage point. We can look at our data and actually see things that are happening in the world. We can see social discourse emerging. Screen Shot 2018-10-17 at 5.54.38 PM

Another great example that we started to see mid last year is the lookups of the gender pronoun, “Ze,” which we hadn’t added to added to the dictionary yet. And I’m thinking, “Okay, there’s progression in the conversation about gender identity and gender rights, and it’s showing up in the dictionary.” There are so many examples of that.

Tracking language trends and what they can tell us

Liz: All right. So, come back to why people are looking up words like beautiful, good, and happy. It’s not about, “I need to know what that word means”. So, what is it about? I think there’s many possibilities. Maybe it’s about, “I’m feeling this way, and I need some affirmation.” Or, maybe it’s “I want to make sure I’m right.” As in, it’s coming from anxiety. “This is beautiful, but is it really beautiful?” I think understanding that, we can connect in a much deeper way.

And then there are some other word trends that are things that will keep you up at night.

One of my favorite ones is the lookups of curse words. It’s not quite as dire as the other one. You know there are three holidays a year with curse word lookups – Thanksgiving, Christmas and 4th of July. What is going on there?

Courtney: Fourth of July? I wouldn’t have guessed that!

Liz: And those are supposed to be happy holidays. So, why are we all looking up curse words?!

Courtney: Oh, no, I think they’re frightening for family! Like, “Screw this, I can’t believe I’m going to host my family. I just want to escape away!”

Liz: I think one of the best things we can do to eliminate anxiety with anything, is acknowledge that it’s there, right? 

Courtney: Yeah. Well, that’s the first sign of raising consciousness I guess…opening it first.

Definitely though, acknowledging our imperfection is the “human to human” or #H2H philosophy. It’s about humanizing language in a way that we can understand it, and be okay with it.

Kermit_most_lookedup_wordLiz: And, it goes beyond politics.

Courtney: Don’t even get me started on politics. But yes, the point is that’s what needs to be done. Just have the conversation.

Liz: Have the conversation.

I’ve said to my kids, “If I can use a word, and somebody knows what it means, it’s a word.” It’s just up to us as people to figure out what it means. Not up to a dictionary.

Courtney: Do you think, as a society, we’ve lost the lust for meaning?

Liz: I don’t think so. I think that it’s more important than ever. I think that there’s a renaissance of language happening, where the innovation with language is accelerated, and we’re hyper aware of what we’re saying, because of our easy ability to self-publish. I just think we’re more curious. I don’t like this expression that I heard someone say the other day, that “language is being weaponized.” But it made me think, “Well, then we better pay attention.”

Courtney: Where do you think language is being “weaponized” the most?

Liz: Twitter, for sure. I think that’s why, when we clarify the meaning of a word on our Twitter feed in response to someone who used it incorrectly, people respond. Because they’re curious. They want to know.

Our use of language, and the meaning behind it, has never been more important.

In a tumultuous world of online discourse and counter-narratives, we must think about what we say before we say it and recognize the weight of our words.

This means that fact-checking, solidifying truth and clarifying meaning should all be part of our responsibility as citizens, especially online.

I was heartened to hear that Liz doesn’t see our collective curiosity quietening down any time soon; in fact, if anything, it’s getting louder, which is something we all should all hold on to and celebrate.

Liz McMillan is the CEO of Dictionary.com. Its mission is to remove the anxiety we all feel with the English language, enabling and inspiring connection, communication, learning, creativity, and expression for more than 70M people each month.

Featured photo by Alexandra on Unsplash

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