Merriam-Webster Isn't Trolling You, It's Just Redefining What That Means

The language of 2017 is a depressing reminder of how bad things are.
Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists encircle counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after ma
Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists encircle counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 11, 2017.

Language is a living, evolving thing ― and when our society moves in ugly directions, so must our language.

Merriam-Webster just added hundreds of words to its online dictionary, including an online-harassment definition of “troll” and several others that remind us of America’s sorry state.

“Troll” had a life before 4chan and Reddit: It used to be a whimsical term for a folkloric monster, or even a verb for searching or fishing. Now, the first action it suggests, at least to Internet users, is, as Merriam-Webster puts it, “to antagonize (others) online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content,” or “to harass, criticize, or antagonize (someone) especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts.”

Trolling has become such a pervasive issue online that it’s inarguably spilled into the real world ― take the racist Pepe the Frog memes and other far-right online trolling, which helped spread white supremacist sentiments that ultimately bolstered Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

That leads us to another word just added to “alt-right.” The newly dictionary-approved term doesn’t mince words in its definition, which calls it “a right-wing, primarily online political movement [...] whose members reject mainstream conservative politics and espouse extremist beliefs and policies typically centered on ideas of white nationalism.”

It’s a vague-sounding term, and is alternately denied and embraced by its purported leaders, like Milo Yiannopoulos. When we think about rightwing trolling and Pepe the Frog memes, we’re usually thinking of the “alt-right,” basically a white supremacist movement gestated on message boards and propagated through deliberately inflammatory memes. 

The political definition of “dog whistle” also made the cut at last, though it’s perhaps less relevant than it’s been in a while. Merriam-Webster defines it as “an expression or statement that has a secondary meaning intended to be understood only by a particular group of people.” Often, the secondary meaning is derogatory or damaging toward a marginalized group, while the apparent surface meaning of the statement provides political cover against charges of racism or sexism. For example, politicians might rail against food stamps ― while their real mission is to gin up outrage among white listeners that poor, non-white Americans are eating up tax dollars. 

In the era of the “alt-right,” which often flaunts its racist messages, dog whistles might no longer be the only way to insert bigoted ideas into the mainstream political discourse, though they’re still frequently deployed. 

That’s not to say that all the new Merriam-Webster words are grim reminders of our current political swamp. We also welcome “sriracha” and “pregaming” ― what could be more fun than that?