The Secret Life of Dictionaries

  • Veteran lexicographer Kory Stamper, Smith College class of 1996, has a new book out, “Word by Word,” that offers a droll, inside look at the world of dictionaries. Photo by Michael LionstaR

Staff Writer
Thursday, July 20, 2017

When Kory Stamper, just a couple years after graduating from Smith College, responded to a want ad for an editorial assistant position for a “research publisher,” she had no idea the opening was for a lexicographer at the venerable dictionary publisher, Merriam-Webster, in Springfield.

Almost 20 years later, Stamper is still working for Merriam-Webster — happily so, because for someone who loves reading and thinking about words, and a quiet place to do that, producing what’s essentially a written record of the most current version of spoken English is a pretty ideal job.

Stamper, 42, has also become something of a media star in the last several years, thanks to hosting a popular blog on language, giving interviews to major newspapers on word usage, and starring in Q & A videos on the Merriam-Webster website about English-language conundrums. Her jaunty turn on the plural forms of “octopus” in 2010 became a huge online hit.

Now Stamper has taken her love of English to new heights with her first book. “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries” is a funny inside look at how new words make their way into dictionaries, an irreverent take on the history of English itself, and a memoir of her own journey with her fellow “word nerds”: people who “spend the better part of their lives writing and editing dictionary definitions, thinking deeply about adverbs, and slowly, inexorably going blind.”

A 1996 graduate of Smith who grew up in Colorado, Stamper now lives outside Philadelphia in southern New Jersey with her husband and two children; she mainly has been telecommuting to her job as an associate editor for the last 10 years, though she still comes to the Merriam-Webster headquarters about every two months for meetings and other work.

The Gazette recently caught up with Stamper by phone to her about her book, her take on the now-ubiquitous “nothing burger” (or is it “nothingburger”?) and what kind of mail lexicographers get from readers when a new dictionary comes out.

In your book, you write about your lifelong love of reading and language, and how you studied Old English and medieval Icelandic sagas, among other things, at Smith College. What did you imagine you might do with that, job-wise?

“I had always figured the career path available to me was either academia or publishing, and publishing seemed much more preferable. I’d thought, ‘There are lots of academic publishers around, or maybe I’ll get into newspaper production.’ But then I saw the want ad for editorial assistant for a reference publisher and I said, ‘Oh, this is perfect.’ My guess is the ad was either in the Gazette or the [Springfield Republican].”

How is it you’ve become this go-to person in the media for interviews about new words in the dictionary, like “F-bomb,” or doing videos on questions about word usage?

“In 2010, our former marketing director said we should do some video content, so she put out a call to see who wanted to do it, and exactly zero people responded (Stamper laughs). The idea of being on camera is the most terrifying thing for a lot of people there!

Then they selected me and Peter and Emily [two colleagues], and initially we did it on questions we get or fun words you work with. [The videos] were very homespun and actually worked pretty well, and one of the first ones I did, on the plural of ‘octopus,’ went viral.

For interviews with the media on things like new words, we tend to take turns, and I got drawn for the year we put ‘F-bomb’ in, and so, of course, how could you not have everyone report on that?”

Tell us how you came to write “Word by Word.”

“I started writing a blog [called ‘harmless drudgery’] around 2010 about things I thought were interesting about the dictionary, sort of a behind-the-scenes ‘This is what goes into the making of the sausage.’ And I was really surprised by how interested people were in that.

I started thinking, ‘This is such a rich field, and it’s one so few people know about.’ So in late 2014, I started working on a book proposal for it, and once that was accepted, the writing actually went very fast because it had all been sort of stewing in my mind for all these years.”

One gets the sense in reading “Word by Word” that English is a more flexible, fluid language than many others, more readily absorbing new words and without a lot of strict conventions. Do you think that’s the case?

“A conditional ‘yes.’ English is more fluid because unlike other major European languages, for instance, it’s never had a formal academy to say ‘This is what you can and cannot do.’ Other languages I know are linguistically incredibly conservative: They don’t change quickly, they’re not quick to adopt foreign terms.

English is a younger language, and really from the very beginning it’s been stealing bits and pieces of other languages in some way, either whole cloth or piecemeal, so it has a history of being adaptable, even if some people don’t like that — and lots of people don’t. But it does tend to be more fluid and kind of stretch the grounds of grammar.”

How many new words typically go into into each new edition of Merriam-Webster dictionaries, and how does a new word make the cut?

“A lot more words come into the dictionary than we take out now. Now that we’re online, we’re not removing many at all. In the most recent edition of our collegiate dictionary, 25 to 30 editors, working over a period of about 18 months, added about 10,000 words, and we probably took out 50.

A word has to have widespread use, in a whole bunch of different sources, and be used all over, not just regionally [to make it into the dictionary], and it must have sustained use — continuous use — for a certain period of time. Some words we know, soon after they appear, are going to go in really quickly. SARS and AIDS — we knew the phenomena they were describing was not going to go away anytime soon.”

In the past year, we’ve heard the term “nothing burger” more and more frequently, particularly as used by the Trump administration and its supporters to dismiss certain political allegations. Is that a word you’re considering for the dictionary?

“We’re paying attention to it. We need to see if it has some sustained usage and meaning. It was actually first made popular by a gossip columnist in the 1950s and 1960s, then it dropped out of use, now it’s popular again. That’s what’s really interesting about language, how a lot of these things that seem new are really pretty old.

Usually the words that get marked for entry are a whole lot less interesting. One is ‘flight,’ which refers to a tasting sample of food or drinks. An example is, you might go into a bar and it will say ‘You can get a flight of four beers for however much.’ ”

Speaking of marking words, your book explains how you learned to read many publications at work with an eye to identifying — marking — new words and unusual phrases that could be included in a future dictionary. This turns out to be a hard habit to break when you’re reading for pleasure at home, what you call a “mental hangnail.”

“I’ve gotten better at turning that off, in part because I’m an inveterate re-reader. I have about a dozen books I keep coming back to: Hillary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.” That’s my bedtime reading; it’s kind of a soothing mechanism, so I’m just reading, not marking, because I know these books so well.

But it can still be a struggle. I got a quarter way through Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ‘Between the World and Me’ and I had to stop because I was like ‘I have to mark this, I have to make a citation,’ even though I knew it was stupid.”

What are some foreign words you really like, ones you’d like to see become commonplace in English, so that they can be added to the dictionary?

“One of my favorites is from German: ‘kummerspeck.’ It refers to flab from eating too much, but it literally means ‘grief bacon.’ It translates to when you’re sad you overeat, so now you have kummerspeck.”

You describe getting reams of electronic hate mail in 2003 when Merriam-Webster broadened its definition of “marriage” to include same-sex couples. What else do people write to you and other dictionary editors about?

“They’re not usually writing because they want to kill us; they’re writing because they, too, love language. They tell us what they’re looking up and why, or they say ‘Your job sounds awesome, how do I get it?’ They also might have a peeve about a certain word. But when we write back, and explain the history of the word and why we’ve included it, they’re overjoyed — not just because we responded but because they found a connection with someone who cares as deeply about language as they do.”

We had eight years under Barack Obama, a very articulate and eloquent president, and now we have Donald Trump, who communicates primarily in tweets and continuously attacks the media. Does it bother you to see a public figure acting this way, seeming to undermine the use of language as we know it?

“Donald Trump’s language bothers a lot of people, but on the other hand, it’s really making people look at language closely, which is really good. People really care about the meanings of words in a way I haven’t seen in a long time.

One of our top [online] ‘look-ups’ at the beginning of the year was the word ‘fact’ because [Trump advisor] Kellyanne Conway was talking about ‘alternative facts.’ Millions of people, in the space of a day, looked up the word ‘fact’ to verify that what they knew about that word was actually what it meant, and to get a deeper sense of the nuance of the word, and could there be such a thing as an ‘alternative fact.’

That’s exciting. That, more than anything, is going to have a lasting impact on the nation, more than Donald Trump saying whatever Donald Trump says.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Kory Stamper will read from “Word by Word” Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley. She’ll also speak Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Noah Webster House, 227 South Main Street, West Hartford, CT.