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Sponcon? Use case? Is Merriam-Webster lurking on our Slack channel?

September 22, 2022

Headshot for Mary von Aue

Mary von Aue

Senior Editor

Some people get upset whenever Merriam-Webster adds a new word to the dictionary. Lewk graduates from internet slang to canon, and suddenly there are armchair linguists predicting the collapse of the English language.

Everyone’s a critic, but you’re not going to win a fight against the dictionary, sorry. The idea behind these annual updates is that our language is alive, so a dictionary should be designed to evolve and reflect what people are saying. Judging by this year’s crop of new recruits: people are saying a lot about marketing.

The oldest dictionary publisher in the United States announced its fresh batch of 370 words this month with themes that went beyond internet slang. Merriam-Webster highlighted business and marketing terms first when it presented its new collection. Words like supply chain were immediately called out, which we now know to be

“the chain of processes, businesses, etc. by which a commodity is produced and distributed: the companies, materials, and systems involved in manufacturing and delivering goods.”

Of course, there’s little mystery as to why that term was added — with the shipping delays and product shortages of the last couple of years, supply chain issues have dominated headlines.

But then there are the words that I have rarely seen outside of a marketing Slack channel, like sponcon. I would simply define it as shorthand for sponsored content, but Merriam-Webster went so far as to define it as

“content posted usually by an influencer on social media that looks like a typical post but for which the poster has been paid to advertise a product or service.”

In layman’s terms, it’s an advertisement hidden in plain sight.

The dictionary even included a marketing offense: greenwash.

“To make (something, such as a product, policy, or practice) appear to be more environmentally friendly or less environmentally damaging than it really is.”

Merriam-Webster is effectively warning consumers to be wary of this marketing malpractice and pay attention to what our industry is doing, both the good and the bad.

We also have use case,

“a use to which something (such as a proposed product or service) can be put.”

The term gets thrown around the tech world, but according to this definition, it refers to how a service can be packaged and described. When that product is being marketed to consumers, advertisers are presenting all the ways it can be useful to their lives. There are already a million ways to say something is useful, but use case is a specific type of jargon that I thought would forever remain in specific bubbles.

How did these terms make it to the dictionary? Are agencies pitching to Merriam-Webster now?

“It doesn’t involve any academy or committee or any lobbying by word advocates,” Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large at Merriam-Webster, once explained in his blog. “It’s a process that historically has been very slow but today can be much faster, as in the case of ‘tweet.’”

It’s unsurprising that last year’s entries were heavily focused on social media terms, because at the height of the pandemic, most of our conversations were online. That’s when the rationale behind this year’s new terms became clear: Marketing copy, through sponcon, use cases, and more, is everywhere, more than ever before….and everyday language has evolved accordingly.

“Words offer a window into our ever-changing language and culture,” Sokolowski said in a statement when he delivered this year’s words, “and are only added to the dictionary when there is clear and sustained evidence of use.”

So what does it mean for us as marketers if our jargon is becoming more mainstream? We should assume the average consumer is wise to marketing tricks like greenwashing, and probably more wary of traditional advertising techniques. And that means that we, as marketers, need to be creative, smart, and real when we’re developing ways of reaching them.

That’s just fine by us — we’re happy to do our part to keep that particular supply chain strong.

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