From 'witch hunt,' to 'kompromat': What new definitions added to Dictionary.com reveal about our political discourse

PHOTO: President Donald Trump listens to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speak during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House, March 19, 2019, in Washington.PlayEvan Vucci/AP
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Viral posts and interactions on social media often appear fleeting — isolated moments that pass away once the next big trend pops up, but what we talk about online and how we talk about it is shaping our culture in more permanent ways. From presidential tweets, to Twitter feuds, our virtual conversations are having a direct and immediate impact on the English language itself.

Dictionary.com, the digital English language resource, announced on Wednesday the addition of over 300 new words and definitions to its online archive, "reflecting the latest use of language as it relates to identity, culture, repression, and technology’s influence on modern life, both online and offline."

Additions include a selection of teenage slang like ZFG (zero f---- given, a euphemistic initialism used to indicate an indifferent attitude, without explicit vulgarity), JSYK (just so you know) and JOMO (joy of missing out: a feeling of contentment with one’s own pursuits and activities, without worrying over the possibility of missing out on what others may be doing).

They also include fashion terms reflecting new trends like balayage (a hair highlighting technique in which dye is painted onto the hair to lighten it in a natural-looking way) and Canadian tuxedo (a denim top and bottom worn together, as a denim jacket and jeans.)

But according to Jane Solomon, a lexicographer at Dictionary.com, one of the prominent themes that emerged in this selection of words is the strong prevalence of politics in our discourse and debates.

"It’s a really disparate set of words, but in terms of what do they have in common, they came across our lexicographers' radars and we decided that they were prominent enough and have enough usage that people would want to look them up on Dictionary.com," Solomon told ABC News. "I came across a lot of political words and this is not uncommon because politics is a huge topic of discussion. At any point in time, it's all over the news and there are new words entering the language about politics," she added.

Dictionary.com has also been engaging in the social space, inserting corrections, clarifications and notes on evolutions in meanings to the popular debates of the day.

Here are a few examples of the new political words that were just added:

"DACA": Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals: "a program intended to allow undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as minors to legally remain in the country to study or work."

"Dream Act": "Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act: proposed legislation intended to provide a path to lawful permanent residency for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as minors, contingent upon their submission to background and medical checks and their fulfillment of educational requirements."

"Kompromat": (Noun, Russian) "compromising and incriminating material that is sometimes forged or fabricated, used to sabotage or discredit a political opponent or public figure."

"This has been used a lot in terms of politics, especially in conversation around Russian interference in the U.S. election," Solomon said. "You can see it all over the place, in conversations about misinformation and disinformation. It is relatively new in the English language but very prominent in the last several years."

PHOTO: In this July 16, 2018, file photo, U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands at the beginning of a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo
In this July 16, 2018, file photo, U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands at the beginning of a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland.

And in an upcoming update, additional definitions and context will be added to words like "snowflake" and "witch hunt."

"Snowflake," which is currently defined as "one of the small, feathery masses or flakes in which snow falls," "an agglomeration of snow crystals falling as a unit" or "any snow particle," will be getting this additional entry: "Slang. a person who is easily offended, overly sensitive, or emotionally fragile."

The term has been used often in political debates on social media to insult and disparage others with opposing political views.

And "witch hunt," which was one of President Donald Trump's favorite ways to characterize special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election, will now also be defined as "an intensive inquiry, originally or purportedly to discover and expose dishonesty, subversion, or other wrongdoing, the scope and conclusions of which often include and bring harm to innocent persons or their reputations through reliance on hearsay or circumstantial evidence."

It will also be updated with a new note "which delves into the history of this term, and the assumptions and motivations at play in its modern rhetorical use."

Other additions include words that describe how people are communicating about political and cultural debates and some provide more nuanced definitions of online bullying or trolling:

"Crybully": a person who self-righteously harasses or intimidates others while playing the victim, especially of a perceived social injustice.

"Cybermob": a self-perpetuating group of people carrying out a campaign of online harassment that often includes ridicule and shaming or hate speech and threats, in response to reported news, stated opinions, published images, etc.

"False flag": an attack or other hostile action that obscures the identity of the participants carrying out the action while implicating another group or nation as the perpetrator.

"Keyboard warrior": Informal. a person who posts highly opinionated text and images online in an aggressive or abusive manner, often without revealing his or her own identity.

"Tone policing": a conversational tactic that dismisses the ideas being communicated when they are perceived to be delivered in an angry, frustrated, sad, fearful, or otherwise emotionally charged manner.

"Virtue signaling": the sharing of one's point of view on a social or political issue, often on social media, in order to garner praise or acknowledgment of one’s righteousness from others who share that point of view, or to passively rebuke those who do not.

"White fragility": the tendency among members of the dominant white cultural group to have a defensive, wounded, angry, or dismissive response to evidence of racism.

"Whitelash": a hostile or violent reaction by white people to the advances or influx of other racial or ethnic groups.

Asked if decisions to add certain words are impacted by searches for those words in Dictioinary.com, Solomon said that this is one of the factors that lexicographers ("a writer, editor, or compiler of a dictionary," according to Dictionary.com) take into account.

"One of them in particular that I saw in our data in terms of words that people looked up that weren’t currently in the dictionary is the word ‘colorism,’" Solomon said. "Until recently, you would not get a result."

"Colorism," which has been debated heavily online in discussions on diversity and equality, is one of the new additions to Dictionary.com and is defined as, "differential treatment based on skin color, especially favoritism toward those with a lighter skin tone and mistreatment or exclusion of those with a darker skin tone, typically among those of the same racial group or ethnicity."

Solomon said that while lexicographers study both spoken and written words, written sources and recorded videos are more accessible and social media in particular is useful because it is a reflection of how people really talk. While newspapers and media reports are edited, social conversations are generally more unfiltered.

"In terms of gathering and collecting evidence as we write these definitions, a conversation face-to-face is great evidence, but we don’t have access to that usually until it’s a high profile conversation that is video taped," Solomon said, but "social media is great for that because you can be privy to the conversations that you might not otherwise have been able to see and they’re often in a more informal register."