A dictionary editor’s concession: Language is ‘really squishy’

A Q&A with Kory Stamper, an editor at Merriam-Webster and author of ‘Word By Word,’ on profanity, and the politics of language

Leafing through a Merriam-Webster dictionary. (Francis Dean/Corbis/Getty Images)

Leafing through a Merriam-Webster dictionary. (Francis Dean/Corbis/Getty Images)

Kory Stamper, an editor at Merriam-Webster and one of the dictionary maker’s public faces, is an articulate and often cheerfully profane champion of the harmless drudge school of lexicography. The reference, of course, is to lexicographers’ patron saint, Samuel Johnson, who first set out their art and craft as “tracing the origin and detailing the signification of words.” For Stamper, it is her and her colleagues’ job to show current usage, not comment on its stylistic or moral quality. A large proportion of dictionary users, on the other hand, beg to disagree. Stamper spoke with senior writer Brian Bethune about her new book, Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, the eternal battle between descriptionists and prescriptionists, and how lexicographers determine whether a word merits entry in their dictionaries.

Q: For many Merriam-Webster users, you and yours are not harmless drudges—collectively, you are the Voice of Authority.

A: Most people, if they think at all about the dictionary, think of it as this fixed object given to us from on high. It is the thing that legitimizes language and makes language real. You never think that it’s actually compiled by living, breathing nerds like me. When you realize that it’s compiled by people, it becomes a different thing, a different kind of document.

Q: And therein lies the origin of prescriptionist versus descriptionist. Can you talk about how the dictionaries picked up their authority? You keep blaming yourself all the way through your book.

K: We do blame ourselves. First, there’s a measure of prescriptivism and descriptivism in every dictionary. Prescriptivism believes that the language should mirror the best practices of English, and editors are prescriptivist in so far as they don’t want to let things they consider to be inelegant or ungrammatical into print. But overall, we are descriptionist: we record how language is used. But to sell them back in the 19th century, our marketing folks decided to play up the refined usage angle because prescriptivism was very popular: our dictionary is where you go to learn anything about anything. That really set the tone in North America for how people responded to dictionaries.

Q: And other would-be authorities championed prescriptionism too, to powerful effect.

A: Right. Language is the primary way we communicate with each other, and we have really strong feelings about what words mean, and about good language and bad. Those things are really based on sort of an agglutination of half-remembered rules from high school or college, and our own personal views on language and the things we grew up saying, the things we grew up being told not to say. I make the case in the book that Standard English, that language we all aspire to live and move and have our being within, is actually based on a fiction. It’s not anyone’s native way of speaking or writing. That’s why we have to take classes in it. Language is just really squishy.

Q: But as you said, there’s a measure of both sides in any dictionary, a kind of mushy middle. We all have pet peeves—“one of the only” drives me around the bend. Others hate the singular “they.” But you are a proponent?

A: I am for the singular they. I think there is a case to be made for using it. It flows fairly easily in print, so you don’t get caught on his or hers, him or her, he or she. And we see in the readings we do for the dictionary not just more and more uses of they for people, when the gender of the referent isn’t know, but also a lot of use of it by people who are not comfortable identifying by the two gendered pronouns we have. So I feel like they is OK. Now, I know that burns the biscuits of some people. And that’s fine too. Just because it’s in the dictionary doesn’t mean you have to use it—there’s room in the language for all of us.

Q: It’s a good example of a new word or new usage fitting lexicographers’ three criteria for inclusion. There’s the widespread use you mentioned, but also sustained use?

A: Singular they is historical, much older than the gender-neutral all were taught until, say, the 1800s, when a usage commentator—a woman, actually— prescribed he as the singular gender-neutral pronoun of choice. But they never really dropped out of use. You’d still see it in print, just not nearly as much as he. And the gap between the two usages has been narrowing for probably the last 100 years or so. 

Q: The third criterion, which can seem puzzling, is meaning.

A: That’s always the thing that, whenever I explain this to people, they get hung up on because, I mean, we assume words have meaning. And it’s difficult to point to a word people know but which doesn’t really have meaning.  The example I usually give antidisestablishmentarianism, which is famous just for being long. Singular they has real meaning.

Q: There’s a brief mention of Canadian English in your book.

A: I mentioned it in one construction. I don’t know if you have it in Ontario, but this is something that my daughter says, because the construction is also in various American dialects. I’m from Colorado, but we live outside of Philadelphia, and if I ask, “Have you finished all your homework,” she will reply, “I’m done my homework.”

Q: I laughed when I read that, because the construction is so normative to me I hadn’t realized the whole of North America did not say it.

A: It’s not native to my dialect, where you’d say “I’m done with my homework.”  Or “the dishes,” or whatever.

Q: I think that construction belongs with a different, more permanent meaning: “I’m done with you. Goodbye.” Or maybe it’s humans who demand a preposition: “I’m done with the doctor.” Your point, though, is that Standard English is more in flux than we usually realize. That really shows up in pronunciation. You write about the “cot/caught” convergence—the two words sound identical to me.

A: Do you have the Mary-merry-marry merger?

Q: Two of them, I think. I pronounce marry to rhyme with carry, but my Mary and merry sound identical: mare, as in horse, plus ee. To me, that is—I don’t know what a listener would hear.

A: Right, there are different varieties of the merger. It’s not a simple demarcation, where I can say, you have it and you don’t. Some people match three, some people match two, some match a different two, some give all three different vowel sounds. Whenever you try and simplify how people speak, it’s just hard to squish them into a simple rule. Language doesn’t work that way.

Q: Are autocorrect programs making hay with typos and usages in new ways? Here in Toronto there is a major east-west street named Bloor, with a subway under it and therefore very busy. I can’t be the only person in this city whose phone is constantly texting “I’m at the corner of Blood and Jane,” say, which sounds less like “So I’ll be downtown in 20 minutes,” and more like “Call the police immediately.”

A: Right. Right. What makes autocorrect really interesting for a lexicographer is we read in a very weird way. A lot of times we’ll catch things that are so clearly autocorrect typos, and you learn to tell the difference between an honest-to-goodness, ham-fisted typo and an autocorrect typo because the latter will not necessarily be a difference of one letter apart on the keyboard, which is usually what typos are, or it won’t be the wrong its or the wrong there. I read an article recently where the writer said, as it turned out, “The Premier will be visiting the area tomorrow.” But “tomorrow” had been autocorrected to “towards”: “The Premier will be visiting the area towards.” And I was like, “Oh, my gosh, that’s such a bizarre use of towards.” So I started to add a citation [the first step to eventual inclusion in a dictionary], and then thought I’d better just check. I opened up some Word document and ham-fisted tomorrow into it and then ran it through spell check—where it autocorrected to towards. So: no citation.

A nuclear power station in Ottawa County, Ohio. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

A nuclear power station in Ottawa County, Ohio. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Q: As a born “nukular” guy, who spent maybe 40 years blithely unaware that this was a seriously mockable pronunciation of nuclear [should be “new-clear”], I was glad to read your take on it.

A: I really don’t understand the antipathy towards it, particularly given its weird dual status, where it is considered uneducated and illiterate, and yet is spoken and used freely and liberally by some of the most highly educated public figures we have. When you really stop and deconstruct the frothing rage over “nukular,” you have to ask, “Why do I hate this?” Because someone said it’s wrong. Well, who said it’s wrong? Why is it wrong? And yes, it’s the sort of usage that leads to self-policing. I certainly self-police my language depending on who I’m talking to. I try to be very careful about using filler words, about not drawling certain vowels, even when I can’t say “drawl” without drawling.  That’s kind of sad, because self-policing inhibits communication. You’re more focused on the words coming out of your mouth or that should not be coming out of your mouth than making a connection with the person you’re speaking to.

Q: The “nukular” issue, like your example of your daughter and her homework, shows that much of our angst over correct usage is class-based. We worry about being judged—or worse, our children being judged—over our speech.

A: Yes, very much. We want to emulate the educated class, even if we don’t think of educated people as a class these days. What’s interesting about that is the way it arose was actually not nefarious at all. The initial 18th-, 19th-century intention was to give the less-educated lower classes a way to move up into this new, rising middle class, to enable them to fit in. So our view of language as being class-based is an unintended consequence of the drive to help educate rising businessmen. The history of English is full of that, lots of things done with good intentions that 200 years down the road have resulted in a giant mess, where someone’s pet peeves—like John Dryden and his hatred of terminal prepositions—could become real standards.

Q: And if we’re less class-conscious about language now, we may be more political about it. I think in a lot of people’s minds, the real problem with “nukular” is an association with gung-ho, bomb ’em into the Stone Age-style thinking. That’s where the, as you put it, “frothing” dislike of it arises. From your experience, when Merriam-Webster entered “gay marriage”—resulting in organized write-in campaigns and abuse up to and including death threats—is language more political than ever?

A: Well, that experience was fascinating to live through, though I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. I don’t know that I would say words are more political now, particularly after Trump has come into office. I will say that what I notice is that people pay more attention to the words that politicians use. They really want to understand the full nuance, the connotative meanings of those words. When Kellyanne Conway said she was not a feminist, it seemed like everyone ran over to the Merriam-Webster website to look up the word to see if feminism included the things that Conway said feminism does not include. Words have always been political, and that means that, in many people’s minds, dictionaries are political.

Because that’s what dictionaries do: they do words. And I think when dictionaries define words, there’s a sort of hair-splitting that to most people doesn’t make any sense, which is we’re not describing what a thing is. So we’re not saying that marriage, the thing, is now open to anyone of any gender. We are saying, when the word marriage is used in this particular context, this is what it means. And it was the same with “alternative facts.” That was a big one. “Feminism” was a big one. And when people came to the “marriage” entry, because we live in the Internet age, they either immediately fire off an email to us saying they’re horrified at how commie-pinko-liberal we are, or they fire off an e-mail saying thank you so much for speaking truth to power.

Q: There’s a poignant moment in your book where you write how you hear from people asking, will you please just take “retarded” out of the dictionary, then people will not say it anymore.

A: Yes. It’s very easy, when things like the gay marriage write-in happen, to get sick of how people view language and say, “ah, come on it’s just a dictionary.” But then you hear from people who say if you take out “retarded” it won’t exist anymore, and there will be no slurs for people to call my child. And that’s just heartrending. Lexicographers may be nerds who don’t like human contact, but we’re still people. There’s no way for a human to respond to that and not feel the pain. It’s difficult to sit down and write a letter back saying, “you know what, even if we remove the word from the dictionary, people will still continue to use it.” That’s the tightrope that we walk—”gay marriage” is another example, or the word “nude.”

Q: That’s about the meaning of “nude” as a colour—which, for decades meant “the colour of a white woman’s skin”—and it’s a great example, because most people wouldn’t think of that as an issue at all.

A: But if you’re a woman of colour and you’re going out to buy a nude slip, one that’s your colour, the lighter-colour nude was once all you were confronted with. So that’s all you can think about. Language is a signifier—it points to something. But those somethings change sometimes. Where the line comes down is that change is not in the dictionary first, it’s not: change the signifier and the signified will go away. We could make changes to the dictionary definition of the colour nude because the entry was out of date. A lot of people thought oh, we caught the dictionary in racism, or all it takes is a whole bunch of people saying that a word is bad for the dictionary to change it. That’s not the case. For nude, things that are called nude colour, that colour palate has broadened very recently, in the last maybe seven to 10 years, and now covers all skin tones.

Q: But with “marriage,” the situation was different?

A: With “marriage,” the word gets applied to same-sex marriages by proponents and opponents alike. That means the word itself is changing, and we reflect this change. But because of the idea that the dictionary is the objective voice of authority over culture and knowledge, it reads like approval. It’s not a helpful way of looking at lexicography.

Q: You have a whole chapter on profanity, and another on the evolving meaning of bitch.

A: I love profanity, words everybody knows and nobody wants to talk about. Why does “f—k” have so many acronymic etymologies? I had a conversation with a colleague who is a slang lexicographer, and did a timeline of slang for female genitalia. He turned it into whichever publication, and they kicked it back and said you can’t use the word c–t. Nope, that’s a line too far—you can use any of your other euphemisms, but not c—t. Profanity is the cousin at the family reunion that always shows up and nobody really wants to talk to.

Q: Does that mean c–t is heading for N-word territory for basically political reasons?

A: I think we’re already there. You will hear people say the C-word. Except, it’s a regional language: in British English, c—t has much less of an inflammatory sense than it does in North American English. You can hear someone on British TV called “a c—ting monkey” or a man being called a c—t. The particular fascination of profanity is how culturally specific it is and how it evolves.


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