United Airlines video: Merriam-Webster dictionary trolls company over definition of 'volunteer'

''Volunteer' means 'someone who does something without being forced to do it''

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The Independent Culture

You know you're in trouble when the dictionary comes after you.

Searches for the definition of the word 'volunteer' spiked by 1,900 percent after it was used in a statement released by United Airlines, in light of a disturbing video of a paying customer being forcibly dragged out of his seat by three security guards. 

The video, showing the passenger being pulled up the aisle by his arms, was posted on Facebook by passenger Auda D. Bridges and has since gone viral, sparking fury across social media.

The following statement was released by United Airlines: "Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologise for the overbook situation."

Many, of course, questioned United's use of the word "volunteer" when the video seemed to paint an entirely different picture, so Merriam-Webster decided to step in on Twitter and clarify the definition for both those enquiring, and United itself.


"'Volunteer' means 'someone who does something without being forced to do it,'" Merriam-Webster tweeted, adding on its website: "Some of the interest in the definition of volunteer may come from the wording of the statement from United, since a person who did not volunteer to leave was then described as refusing 'to leave the aircraft voluntarily' — and subsequently being forced to do it."

The dictionary also seemed to have taken issue with the airline's use of the phrase "overbook situation", adding: "News accounts of the incident made mention of the fact that the flight was overbooked, but, as dictionary people, we also notice that the airline’s statement used overbook adjectivally to modify a noun, a definition that we don’t yet include."

"This use probably shows one way that language evolves: specialized words that are frequently used within an industry sometimes undergo functional shift and may or may not spread to common usage. We volunteer to watch this one."

This isn't the first time Merriam-Webster has stepped in to school those whose grasp on the English language seems tenuous, explaining the definition of the word 'complicit' to Ivanka Trump after she claimed she didn't know its meaning, and the term 'feminism' to Kellyanne Conway after she attempted to make up her own definition of the term.

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