Stamper’s Word by Word: the Secret Life of Dictionaries takes readers inside the halls of Merriam-Webster and deep into the process of curating the English language.
By Matt Skoufalos | October 5, 2018
There’s a lot of revelation in Collingswood author Kory Stamper’s Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, perhaps most notably in how mundane and unimpressive the process of lexicography—dictionary curating—is in practice.
The work of Webster (not a trademarked name, Stamper notes) isn’t furious academic daydreaming or brown-liquor pitch meetings.
It’s bad bulk coffee from a Cold War-era urn, sipped in monastic silence.
The environment is ascetic, the job meditative and intense, and the finished product immediately obsolete. Like all of publishing, it is also relentlessly scheduled.
Dictionaries aren’t written from the beginning (you bring your “A” game after “K” or “H,” which have fewer entries), and they aren’t written for all time. They’re written by people whose only qualifications, other than good intentions and high levels of focus, are completing college and speaking English as a native language.
Stamper cites Samuel Johnson’s famous description of lexicographers as “harmless drudges” who are “driven by the fear of evil [more]than attracted by the prospect of good.”
“They do this work for no fame, because all their work is published anonymously under a company rubric,” Stamper wrote, “and certainly not for fortune, because the profit margins in lexicography are so narrow they’re measured in cents.
“The process of creating a dictionary is magical, frustrating, brain wrenching, mundane, transcendent,” she wrote. “It is ultimately a show of love for a language that has been called unlovely and unlovable.”
Kory Stamper will discuss Word by Word: the Secret Life of Dictionaries from 1 to 2 p.m. Saturday, October 5, at the 2018 Collingswood Book Festival. NJ Pen Editor Matt Skoufalos will moderate. For details, click here.
NJ PEN: Your book paints the work of dictionary-making in really stark terms.
The idea of working in total quiet, drinking abysmal coffee—it’s not what anyone would really think, if they even had an impression of it.
KORY STAMPER: The coffee being abysmal was the worst thing.
I came to the job from an administrative assistant position that felt like Glengarry Glen Ross – lots of screaming, frantic deadlines hanging over you, everything is always late, everything is always wrong.
When I took a tour of Merriam, I didn’t realize it was that quiet all the time, but it was a nice corrective after coming out of nonstop screaming and telephone calls and pressure.
It’s a really weird crucible, because you have to determine not just if you have the personality temperament to sit eight hours a day and not interact with people, but also to determine if the kind of work you’re doing, this in-depth pulling apart the innards of English and getting them all over you, if that can sustain you.
We used to twice as many editors as we needed, assuming that half of them would leave during the year because it’s really isolating. I got used to it, but it was hard to switch back and forth.
NJ PEN: Note-passing back and forth, communicating over e-mail only; it sounds like it can get super-passive-aggressive.
STAMPER: It can definitely be super-passive-aggressive. You could have a passive-aggressive argument with a coworker across decades. You might not pull those files out again for 10 or 12 years. There are instances in the Merriam files about how to phrase a word that will go on only in notes.
NJ PEN: How much of writing your book was about letting people know what that process is really like?
STAMPER: It was about 80 percent, “I’ve got to set the record straight,” and 20 percent “just geek out over how great English is.” As I was writing the book, I would find that I would just get almost giddy at how ridiculous English is, how confusing it is, how illogical it is, and yet it’s continued on for 1,500 years.
Initially, it’s “let’s examine what dictionaries are supposed to do,” and some of that was funny stories, and people should hear them. English gets such a bad rap among people who care about language, and I find it to be this resilient, beautiful bastard that keeps on going.
NJ PEN: Is it getting harder to keep up? There’s always new words, new usage, and new sources of information.
STAMPER: That dynamic has even been shifting in the last five or six years.
Before, you had this staff of nerds upstairs in a room, reading books and newspapers and magazines.
With the Internet, we can now access local writing in a way that we couldn’t before. There is a whole lot more of cataloguing in the wild.
The upside is we get more English; the downside is dictionary companies are a shrinking business. We’ve lost a lot of editors, and we have fewer editors doing the same amount of work. Two-thirds of their day is now taken up with other stuff.
Now you go in these fits and starts of new defining. That kind of pressure is not always conducive to sitting with a word and teasing out its meanings.
NJ PEN: You’re wrestling with ideas more than words.
You get into exchanges with other editors, other readers, while you’re looking to lock these things down.
And then you end up having this thing that you finally get your hands on, and it changes again.
STAMPER: I cannot grasp a word’s meaning because meaning is inherent in the word and is always shifting.
Definition is reflective of one facet of meaning. I will draft a definition, and then it goes off to another editor who is copy-editing things, and who will do the same thing. There’s a little bit of subjectivity in that, but who’s to say we’re not missing something big?
NJ PEN: Language is used differently by different people. How do you account for a variety of perspectives when you’re editing a dictionary?
STAMPER: Our workforce was more female than male, but all white, all highly educated, in that they have at least one college degree. Most of them are New Englanders because they’re located in Springfield, Massachusetts. But lexicography has always been overwhelmingly white, male, straight, educated, WASP-y, New England-y.
NJ PEN: What do you do about that?
STAMPER: I feel like it’s a ship that’s big and needs to be turned slowly, but it’s something that every lexicographer I know is aware of. Someone’s got to read Vibe and back issues of Ebony and Jet, and somebody’s got to read The Root, and do we have any Latino and Latina sources? Who’s reading Time Out New York? Who’s reading The Gay Times?
I think when you’re researching words for entry, there needs to be more explanation. Things like “shade” was taken from gay culture in the 70s.
NJ PEN: Really?
STAMPER: “Shade” and “read” are these two words that came out of drag culture to refer to how you insult someone. A “read” is when you tell someone that they’re ugly; “shade” is when you give someone a backhanded compliment to tell them they’re ugly. Because it spread a lot on the Internet, nobody quite knows where it’s from.
NJ PEN: Without people going into those sources, they don’t know those origins.
STAMPER: I think younger lexicographers are trying to highlight that words you think are great and fun come from a marginalized community. And then they get involved in this conversation about what’s appreciation and what’s appropriation.
That’s been a huge blind spot in dictionaries, because you can’t just pretend that they’re wholly didactic materials without taking into account the types of people who are hired to write them.
NJ PEN: I feel like hoagiemouth, the Philadelphia/South Jersey/Delco accent, is as popular as it’s ever been right now. Are there any distinctly regional words from our area that are gaining traction?
STAMPER: The big one that came to national prominence (and has therefore been disowned by anyone in Philly) is “jawn.” Now Vitamin Water uses “jawn” in their ads, and it’s like, “Oh come on.”
“Chumpie.” The differences between “jawn” and “chumpie” are different to me; “chumpie” is a specific thing whereas “jawn” is a lot broader. “Jawn” as a person is still prominent; it shows up in North Philly, on Twitter, and I still think it’s restricted mostly to there.
There’s also the dropping of the article. “I’m done [with]my homework,” “going down [to]the shore.” If you listen to the Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl,” they will use that as an exemplar of the Philadelphia accent. It features every phonological marker that typifies Philly.
NJ PEN: One word I have to ask you about is “irregardless.” That’s always been a huge no-no, and yet you make the case in your book that it’s a legitimate usage with decades of context. How does this happen?
STAMPER: “Irregardless” is in the dictionary because it shows up in print, but we’ve got this big paragraph about usage. “If you use this, people will think it’s incorrect. Whether your regional use of it is common or not, that’s what people think of this.”
I feel like you can never over-contextualize English because it’s a complex language. It’s more about how much context, and what kind of context you need to include, and how do you orient that context?
The reasons that people don’t like “irregardless” being in the dictionary don’t actually jibe with reality. It’s redundant. Sure, so is two-thirds of English vocabulary. If we’re going to start cutting redundancies, we’re going to start setting fire to the language.
It’s impossible at this point in the language to invent a rule saying words cannot mean their opposites because we’ve got tons of words that do. It’s illogical, but “inflammable” means “flammable”; “unthaw” means “thaw.”
Standard English is a written language and we all use it; there’s stuff that I grew up saying that my New England colleagues think is uneducated and it’s not. It’s just not their dialect.
NJ PEN: Every year people freak out because you add new words to the dictionary. How do you decide when it’s time to put something in?
STAMPER: There are standards for every one of the dictionaries that we publish. For this dictionary, we really want to see a minimum of six-to-10 years of sustained use [of a word]. But if you can find that it’s got a couple of blips 40 years ago, we can say that it’s come back around.
All of that stuff is done by the individual definer. You get training when you come in, but then it’s really on-the-job training. As you define, and you get feedback from your boss, or you’re proofreading definitions that are going in, you could send an email and say, “I didn’t think this word had the backing to make it in.”
NJ PEN: Like Hall of Fame voting.
STAMPER: It’s only slightly less political than Hall of Fame voting. Particularly, the words that the marketing folks pick up, we just assume that everyone will hate them.
The way that words enter the dictionary kind of mirrors how English grows. One person uses a word, and then it spreads, and we all kind of collectively decide what that word means, not through any concerted group effort, but because of the pattern of how it moves.
As that entry moves through all the different editing passes that it has to go through, all these other definers come through and say, “That makes sense,” or, “It’s not ready for entry.” It’s a silent, concerted effort that happens in the background of the definers every day.
NJ PEN: I think a lot of kids’ early experiences with the dictionary involves realizing that you can look up words you aren’t supposed to say, and then giggling about how they’re in there, and they have definitions. Does any of that silliness enter into this job?
STAMPER: I joke that good lexicographers have a sharp eye and a filthy mind. When our dictionary went online in ‘95 or ‘96, we started tracking which words people look up, and “fuck” was always the top one.
You have this idea of what the dictionary is; this is right and this is wrong. It’s tweed and elbow patches. It’s a place where you find out how to spell crazy medical terms. Nobody thinks of it as chronicling all of the language.
I think one of the reasons 12-year-olds look up “fuck” in the dictionary is because they assume it won’t be there. But they find it there, and then, if this is in the dictionary, what else is in there?
The tendency we have to go immediately for what’s obscene, what’s vulgar, what’s profane, is that we know English is broader than just spelling words and your geography homework and whatever was in The New England Journal of Medicine.
But it doesn’t square with our idea of what a dictionary is. We think of it as this old standard of good and right and proper English, and you’ve been told all your life that “fuck” is not good and right and proper English. But it is.
NJ PEN: The dictionary is not the gatekeeper that people think it is.
Or, it’s the gatekeeper of everything, including the stuff you don’t like?
STAMPER: When we added a definition that included same-sex marriage, I got credible death threats that I reported to the FBI.
I was the one who was answering the e-mails, it made it from “Kory Stamper, spokesperson,” to “Kory Stamper, editor,” to “Kory Stamper, the person who put this in.”
Lots of people assume that the dictionary isn’t just a record of language as it’s used, but that it is somehow a driving force behind culture.
When they find words for concepts they don’t agree with—“I don’t like how you defined ‘assault rifle,’” “I don’t like how you defined ‘pro-choice,’” anything that defines an ideological issue—people somehow believe that the dictionaries are the vanguard of changing culture so that legislation or court rulings can change.
That’s not the case. Culture changes first. Language changes to catch up with where the culture’s going, and the dictionary follows the language. I think we now have evidence of same-sex marriage to the early 1800s.
NJ PEN: Usage of the term “same-sex marriage” dates that far back?
STAMPER: Oh yeah.
To say you’re caving to culture, which culture do you think we’re caving to? These words are always older than people think they are, and we enter words for all sorts of things in the dictionary that are actually illegal, and nobody has raised a ruckus.
Kory Stamper will discuss Word by Word: the Secret Life of Dictionaries from 1 to 2 p.m. Saturday, October 5, at the 2018 Collingswood Book Festival. NJ Pen Editor Matt Skoufalos will moderate.
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