Dictionary definitions can be used to make subtle or not-so-subtle political and social points, as when Merriam-Webster recently brought back " snollygoster," which means a shrewd and unprincipled person or politician. But not all their commentary is reserved for elected leaders. Merriam-Webster has been promoting its dictionaries and new dictionary entries on Twitter of late, and on Thursday it tweeted proudly that "sheeple" was its latest addition.

The term has apparently been in use since 1945 and describes human beings' tendency to follow the crowd, as in when you stand up when everyone else does in an airplane, even though you'd intended to stay in your seat until the doors were open and people started filing off. Merriam-Webster defines it this way: "people who are docile, compliant, or easily influenced." And then it cites this usage example:

Apple's debuted a battery case for the juice-sucking iPhone--an ungainly lumpy case the sheeple will happily shell out $99 for.--Doug Criss

Ouch. Technology reporting websites were predictably quick to respond, with Endgadget's Rob Lefebvre proudly declaring himself an Apple fanboy, and thus a sheeple in M-W's view, and The Verge wondering hopefully if M-W's (presumably Android-using) staff had just fired the first salvo in a new Mac-vs.-PC or Android-vs.-iOS war.

In his speech at Steve Jobs' memorial, former Vice President Al Gore said this: "A neuroscientist conducted a study to see whether or not the iPhone and the iPad were addictive. So he studied the parts of the brain that were fired off when people used them. After numerous tests and focus groups, he came to the conclusion that the parts of the brain that were fired off while using the iPhone and the iPad were not that of addiction, but that of love."

So, while I'm a strictly Android girl myself, I have to recognize that Apple enthusiasts who wait in line overnight just so they can get the hot new product on the day it's released, or pop wireless ear buds in their ears only to have them fall out again, or--yes--spend $99 on a lumpy battery case that wouldn't be needed if the product were designed better--are merely following their hearts. As all of us do, even when we know we shouldn't.

After all this hoopla, there may also be a simpler explanation for M-W's choice of the iPhone battery case critique as a citation. "Sheeple" is a great word, immediately obvious in its meaning even if you've never heard it before, and visually powerful too. But it's not used that often, especially not in writing, or at least it wasn't until M-W came out with its new entry this week. The only other citation had to do with stamping messages on dollar bills and doesn't seem terribly relevant in the modern world. It may simply be that the lexicographers at M-W didn't have a lot to choose from.

Published on: Apr 29, 2017
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