Armed with 'truth,' dictionaries school Donald Trump: Here's what's behind their strategy

PHOTO: A page from the dictionary is seen in this stock photo.STOCK/Getty Images
A page from the dictionary is seen in this stock photo.

President Donald Trump’s prolific social media posts, which are often ridden with random punctuation marks, capitalizations and typos, have not only gone viral in the digital space, but have prompted corrections and clarifications from the definer of words and the decoder of meaning itself — the dictionary.

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“There is a longing for truth and sometimes the truth is complicated and nuanced and that’s okay, but I think that really, what people are looking for is for someone with legitimacy like the dictionary to be able to succinctly and clearly express truth,” Lauren Sliter, senior manager of marketing and content strategy at Dictionary.com, told ABC News.

Most recently, the president appeared to misspell "emergency" in a Monday morning tweet, where he lamented that Mexican police were unable to stop a caravan of migrants headed towards the U.S. southern border and wrote that it's "a National Emergy. Must change laws!"

Following Trump's latest typo, Dictionary.com noted that searches for "energy" and "emerge" — words that resemble "Emergy" — skyrocketed.

In an attempt to defend his writing skills in July, Trump made another mistake, tweeting that despite "having written many best selling books, and somewhat priding myself on my ability to write," the media, which he called "the Fake News," "constantly likes to pour over my tweets looking for a mistake."

After many, including "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling, noted that Trump wrote "pour" instead of "pore," he deleted his original tweet and tweeted the one above — but not before dictionaries took notice.

"Pore and pour have taken over the top search spots on dictionary.com this evening. Do you know the difference? Hint ... Kermit would have to pour his favorite drink into his cup," Dictionary.com tweeted.

Merriam-Webster also chimed in, tweeting the definitions for "pore over," "pour over," and even "come over," which some Twitter users took to be a dig at Trump's hair.

Over the past few years, dictionaries like Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com have been infusing digital conversations — from politics, to pop culture — with commentary rooted in the meaning of words and our evolving relationship with them. And from correcting presidential misspellings to sharing tidbits on etymology, tweets referencing the president and his White House have prompted some to ponder whether the dictionary is trolling Trump.

When asked about this notion, top dictionary editors, social media managers, and digital strategists told ABC News that their strategies are rooted in a commitment to truth in an age of disinformation and ambiguity.

“Paying attention to the spelling and meaning of words is a way of respecting linguistic facts, which is a requirement for serious, professional, published writing,” Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large of Merriam-Webster, told ABC News. "Before we can come to a consensus on the meaning of ideas, we need to come to a consensus on the meaning of the words that express those ideas," he added.

Here’s a look back at some viral moments of the Trump presidency and some of the dictionary's viral responses:

Trump's spelling lessons

Jane Solomon, a lexicographer at Dictionary.com, told ABC News that whenever Trump misspells or misuses a word, searches in the dictionary for that word or combination of words rises, noting that in May 2017 searches for "covfefe" — Trump's now infamous late-night typo — skyrocketed, becoming one of the most searched words "without a definition" that year.

The morning after, Trump deleted the tweet, which said "despite all the constant negative press covfefe," and in good humor wrote, "Who can figure out the true meaning of "covfefe" ??? Enjoy!"

"Presidential misspellings are almost always looked up in Dictionary.com, and when I say presidential misspelling I’m really talking about the current president because I’m pretty sure previous presidents had a copy editor. We just didn’t see so many misspellings, I didn’t even notice any," Solomon said.

"One reason why people are jumping on these misspellings are looking them up is because it shows, I think, a certain level of roughness, unpolished communication from someone in the highest office in our country," she added.

Merriam-Webster also noted that searches for "covfefe" spiked and expressed regret for having woken up to the presidential typo that broke the internet.

"Most of what you see is a feature we call Trend Watch, something we’ve been doing since 2010. It’s a data-driven report based on unusual frequency of lookups," Lisa Schneider, chief digital officer and publisher of Merriam-Webster, told ABC News. "When a word that is not frequently looked up is suddenly at or near the top of our real-time lookup data, it means everyone went to the dictionary at the same time to look up the same word. We can usually trace that back to some event or statement in the public sphere."

PHOTO: The Twitter account of President Donald Trump, @realDoanldTrump, is displayed in Washington, D.C., Jan. 27, 2017.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE
The Twitter account of President Donald Trump, @realDoanldTrump, is displayed in Washington, D.C., Jan. 27, 2017.

Here are some other examples on Trump typos that promoted responses from dictionaries:

The president misspelled "collusion" in one of many in tweets where he slammed special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian meddling into the 2016 election and possible collusion by the Trump campaign. "They have found no Collussion with Russia, No Obstruction," he wrote.

"We have not found collussion either. We did, however, find collusion," Dictionary.com responded, along with a link to the definition of "collusion."

Last year, after Trump tweeted “White House Council,” and later sent out a new post with the correct spelling — "counsel" — Merriam-Webster expressed disappointment in a series of tweets.

"Okay, fine. We weren't going to do this, but here you go," the dictionary wrote, tweeting the difference between "counsel" and "council," along with the definitions of "SHEESH" — "used to express disappointment, annoyance, or surprise" — and "headdesk" — "when facepalms aren't enough."

Trump has misspelled "counsel" several times, tweeting it with with a "c" — "councel." He has also written "council" instead of "counsel" when criticizing Mueller.

And in December 2016, when then-president-elect Trump accused China of stealing a U.S. drone, calling the action "unpresidented," instead of "unprecedented", Merriam-Webster weighed in.

"Good morning! The #WordOfTheDay is...not 'unpresidented'. We don't enter that word. That's a new one," the dictionary tweeted, along with a link for the definition of "HUH."

"One thing is clear: words matter. It shouldn’t surprise us, for example, that in a written medium like Twitter or Facebook, spelling counts," Sokolowski said regarding Merriam-Webster's social strategy. "Sure, wit is rewarded and irony comes in buckets, but clarity is more important when we share ideas on a small screen that is scrolled with your thumb. Our ideas are crystallized with language, and the better we use our words, the better we connect with the world."

Trump's history lessons

Trump claimed in an interview with The Economist last year that he invented the phrase, "priming the pump."

“Have you heard that expression used before? Because I haven’t heard it … I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good,” he said.

But Merriam-Webster was quick to note that the phrase "dates to the early 19th century."

"'Pump priming' has been used to refer to government investment expenditures since at least 1933," the dictionary tweeted, along with a link to the definition.

And in May, when Trump fired off another tweet, slamming the “originators and founders” of the Russia probe, which he called a "witch hunt," Merriam-Webster chimed in with an article on the origin of the term "witch hunt."

Trump's vocabulary lessons

In a tweet marking Memorial Day this year, Trump appeared to strike an upbeat tone while touting his administration's accomplishments and the strength of the economy.

"Happy Memorial Day!" he wrote. "Those who died for our great country would be very happy and proud at how well our country is doing today. Best economy in decades, lowest unemployment numbers for Blacks and Hispanics EVER (& women in 18years), rebuilding our Military and so much more. Nice!"

In response to this viral tweet, Dictionary.com tweeted that "Memorial Day" is defined as "a day set aside in most states of the U.S. for observances in memory of dead members of the armed forces of all wars," and noted, "Not found: Economic reports."

And when Trump suggested in May, amid his ongoing feud with the NFL, that players who take a knee during the national anthem to protest racism "maybe shouldn't be in the country," Dictionary.com fired back.

"Inalienable rights are rights that are not capable of being taken away or denied. See also: The right to be in one's own country," the dictionary tweeted in response to Trump's quote and included a link to the definition of "inalienable."

And when Trump said in February that he is not "braggadocios" while touting the Republican tax plan, Dictionary.com tweeted the definition of the word: "Boastful; speaking with exaggeration and excessive pride, especially about oneself. #Trump."

Some tweets also came in response to statements made by top Trump administration officials.

When first daughter and assistant to the president Ivanka Trump responded to critics who claim she is "complicit" with her father and his policies, telling CBS, "I don’t know what it means to be complicit," the dictionary jumped right in to inform her.

"'Complicit' is trending after Ivanka Trump told CBS "I don’t know what it means to be complicit," Merriam-Webster tweeted, along with a link to the definition of "complicit."

"We share this data because it’s fascinating (and to us, gratifying) to see that events drive curiosity about the meaning of words," Schneider said, referencing trending searches. "It means that people care about how language is used. It means that words matter. The fact that many trending words recently have come from political stories is a reflection of the intense focus on politics in the news for the past year: we don’t choose the words that people look up."

And in response to a Washington Post analysis piece titled "In Cabinet meeting, Pence praises Trump once every 12 seconds for three minutes straight," Dictionary.com tweeted, "There's a word for a person who would praise someone every 12 seconds. #VP #Pence," along with a link to the definition of "sycophant."

Fact-checking 'alternative facts'

One of the earliest viral moments of the Trump presidency prompted another viral moment when counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway defended then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer after he repeated Trump's false assertion that there were "like a million and a half people" at his inauguration.

"This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period," Spicer falsely claimed.

Conway told NBC's "Meet the Press" that Spicer "gave alternative facts" when he made that statement, launching what became a popular hashtag and a meme that is still used today.

At the time, Dictionary.com tweeted the definition of "fact" and noted that searches for "alternative" went up 126 percent, while searches for "oxymoron," went up 21 percent.

"'Alternative facts' is a classic example of misleading rhetoric used to confuse people," Silter told ABC, lamenting the notion that "tweeting out what a 'fact'" is could be seen as political. "This is an accepted definition for fact universally, it's what people think when they use the word fact ... unless they’re trying to misinform people or spread misinformation."

"When you’re using language to harm and you are in such a position of power I think that should be called out," Solomon added.

A seemingly disillusioned Merriam-Webster also weighed in, tweeting, "*whispers into the void* In contemporary use, fact is understood to refer to something with actual existence," along with a link to a trend watch article stating, "Lookups for 'fact' spiked after Kellyanne Conway described false statements as 'alternative facts.'"

Adam Maid, content and social media manager, for Merriam-Webster told ABC News that in the digital age, "people now have access to more voices and more information than ever before, and it's really easy to become overwhelmed or simply led astray by a specious claim told with confidence. Or with a GIF or a meme."

In the digital age, when false information can spread like wildfire online, Silter said that Dictionary.com's goal is "eliminating anxiety" by adding "clarity to conversations that might be ambiguous."

“I think what people want is someone to step into this public arena and say things clearly without trying to mislead people, misdirect people or confuse people," she added.

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