I like coffee because it gives me the illusion that I might be awake. —Lewis Black
Competition is everywhere. We compete for time, we compete for attention, we even compete with ourselves when it comes to matters such as losing weight or going to the gym. We understand competition both from a personal and commercial perspective and we typically don’t think too much of one product throwing a little shade at their competition. We rather expect that. After all, they have to compete for our attention before they can compete for our dollars.
Coffee is a competitive business, to be sure, but at the same time, it is one of the things that unites a lot of people. Meeting over coffee is one of my preferred ways of getting together with people. How people drink their coffee, or whether they drink coffee, tells me a little bit about them.
Where we don’t necessarily expect competition, though, is among dictionaries. Certainly, it has always existed, with each claiming to be either the most precise or the most complete. The dictionary business has changed dramatically, though, as the Internet has developed. People are buying fewer dictionaries than ever before, and major search engines now provide the definition of a word simply by typing it in, so we don’t even need to visit a dictionary’s website. Spell check doesn’t help the dictionary business, either, though that function isn’t always reliable.
I’ve just given you three very different and distinct topics within three paragraphs, loosely tied around the concept of competition. Yet, what brings all these together this morning, and the only reason I’m writing about them in the first place, is the shade one dictionary threw at another over coffee, which thereby highlights just how competitive the word business can be.
The whole thing started when the top-ranking dictionary.com posted this tweet:
— Dictionary.com (@Dictionarycom) April 11, 2016
Seems a rather appropriate tweet given this is National Library Week, doesn’t it? A gentle hint at how our word choice carries basic emotions. But look carefully at the picture. Do you see the problem? The folks at Merriam-Webster, you know, that more traditional dictionary that folks my age used all through school, caught the error and were quick with a comeback.
.@Dictionarycom There’s no cream in that coffee.
— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) April 11, 2016
Oops! Major shade thrown. By a dictionary.
If ever there were an example of needing to not only double check but triple check one’s work, this is it. Even in the dictionary business,where competition tends to be more elevated and subtle, if one makes an obvious error in public be sure that the competition is going to pounce on the opportunity to take advantage of your mistake, even if it’s one most people probably didn’t even notice the first time around.
And most people didn’t notice. No one had said a thing about the fact that the coffee in the picture didn’t have any visible signs of being creamed until Merriam-Webster brought it to our attention. Most people tend to skim their Twitter feeds anyway and we actually pay attention to less than ten percent of what we see there. Had the competition not been watching, chances are that even if someone caught the error they likely wouldn’t say anything. After all, who wants to take on people who work for a dictionary? For most mortals, such a challenge could end badly.
The other lesson to be learned here is that pictures have meanings and definitions just as much as words do. One can’t just take a random picture and slap it with a set of words that have no relation, or worse yet, contradict the image. You’ll notice that in the picture we used here the coffee does have cream. Uhm, you did notice that she’s holding coffee, didn’t you? Maybe I’m expecting too much of some, but I’m sure one or two people caught on without having to scroll back up and check. My point is, though, that matching the right picture with the right words can be quite challenging. It took over an hour of wading through the archives before we found a coffee picture that actually had cream in it. Imagine what the challenge would be like for someone who didn’t have such a collection at their fingertips. Finding the right picture can be every bit as challenging, and every bit as important, as finding the right words.
Which brings me to my final point: this is what happens when marketing departments use stock photos rather than buying original imagery. Dictionary.com was slammed because someone in the marketing department, possibly an intern, was instructed to pair a stock image with a literary quote [we’ll just assume that dictionary.com has permission to use the image and didn’t steal it from the Internet]. Business is too competitive to be risking your image with stock photography, especially when the photo doesn’t match the message.
In the end, this isn’t a huge, earth-shattering or career-ending faux pax. I doubt anyone lost their job and this isn’t the type of thing that is going to sway anyone’s opinion about which online dictionary to use. There are lessons to be learned from the situation, though; lessons we all should remember so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes.
And we all could probably do with another cup of coffee.