Merriam-Webster Is Selling the Definition of NFT as an NFT, Which Means You Can Own… Something, Sort Of

Merriam-Webster Is Selling the Definition of NFT as an NFT, Which Means You Can Own… Something, Sort Of
Screenshot: Merriam-Webster on OpenSea

Content creator Merriam-Webster reigns in glorious relevance: the dictionary is auctioning off its definition of NFT, as an NFT, on OpenSea. The definition is objectively boring, so hell, let’s make it interesting! I’ll run a side bet on the buyer and stake my money on Farzin, the collector who snatched up Disaster Girl and Kevin Roose’s New York Times piece.

The proceeds will go to Teach for All, an international network for improving and expanding access to education. (The buyer will not get the tax break.) It’s unclear whether the charity will receive the donation in Ethereum or cash. At the time of writing, the highest bid stands at $US17.65 ($22).

The definition, which went live today, is the one that’s needed explaining and rehashing for months and months until we all got it through our thick skulls:

a unique digital identifier that cannot be copied, substituted, or subdivided, that is recorded in a blockchain, and that is used to certify authenticity and ownership (as of a specific digital asset and specific rights relating to it)

But Merriam-Webster is also down with the slangy, slightly imprecise use of the term, allowing for it to be defined as “the asset that is represented by an NFT.”

That’s not the case in Merriam-Webster’s own NFT of “NFT,” and maybe the most illuminating illustration of the function of an NFT is in the extensive NFT terms. The NFT bears a relationship to the word in the sense that you gave money to Merriam-Webster because they’re telling you that this digital token has to do with the definition of the word. You will not receive a gold chain emblazoned with “NFT,” you don’t own the word or the definition, you may not licence the definition, nor the NFT, and while you may make derivative art inspired by the NFT, you may not use it for commercial purposes. In other words, you will receive a figment of imagination, which is priceless, and the resale value, which is TBD. You’ll also get clout, i.e., a link to your OpenSea profile on Merriam-Webster’s NFT page, unless your profile name is “offensive or otherwise not in keeping with M-W’s brand and reputation.”

Wisely, they’ve planned for contingencies with stipulations about funding terrorism, breaking sanctions, money laundering, and a non-disparagement clause.

If you’re wondering how one can mint an NFT of a word they don’t technically own, Merriam-Webster owns the intellectual property of the verbiage of the definition. Over the phone, Merriam-Webster’s Editor-at-Large Peter Sokolowski reflected on the nature of words, which isn’t so different from the use of memes. “Words belong to everyone,” he said. “Once you’ve learned a word and its etymology and its definition and its spelling, then you own that word. You’re going to carry it with you. You don’t need a token or a dictionary. You have possession, in a sense, of this knowledge.”

The decision to add NFT was uncontroversial, he added. It fit the criteria of widespread use amongst many publications; a history of use indicating that it’s not a fad likely to fade; and a “meaningful use” which is to say that people universally agree on a definition. “Every word has its own pace,” Sokolowski added. “So, for example, cryptocurrency has been around for about twelve years, but I think we added it to our dictionary about two years ago. But the term Covid-19 took about one month to get into our dictionary because, by the same criteria, it was clear that this was a term that was widely used and likely to remain as part of the language.”

“NFT,” he said, similarly isn’t limited to use by currency traders but is in the New York Times and Huffington Post — “places where a general readership is encountering this term.” NFTs are here to stay.

From a lexicographer’s perspective, the definition itself represents a change in how we conduct transactions.

“Fungible comes from the Latin verb, meaning to perform,” he said, adding that the word, added to the English language in the 1600s, was initially used in the context of currency. “I just think that’s an interesting part of this word’s own history: currency, in some ways, is maybe the most fungible of commodities. Your twenty-dollar bill is the same value as mine, but they’re not the same piece of paper. And I think that helps in understanding this new concept, by looking at the old word fungible in English and in its own history as a term of trade and transactions.”

And now it’s in the dictionary, and no one will ever have to explain it again.