Word by Word: Kory Stamper Reveals the Secret Life of Dictionaries

Sarah Harrison Smith on March 30, 2017

Word-by-Word225A “lexicographer,” Samuel Johnson wrote in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, is “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.” Presumably this was tongue in cheek; who would describe themselves that way? Certainly it doesn’t apply to Kory Stamper, the longtime editor at Merriam-Webster whose new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, is one of the critical successes of the season.

For one thing, Stamper doesn’t look the part. Seen discussing why, say, the plural of “moose” is “moose” in “Ask the Editor” videos on YouTube, Ms. Stamper seems to be fighting back a smile and suppressing a slightly sassy shoulder wiggle; her hair color veers from fuchsia in one episode to petrol blue in the next—hardly the mouse brown you’d expect of someone whose work, by her own admission, is solitary and silent. Though there’s no tattoo in sight, viewers may suspect there’s one lurking somewhere—something clever, possibly in Latin.

Stamper’s tone in Word by Word may also come as a surprise. While indisputably erudite, her writing voice is breezy, irreverent, and frequently ribald. You might not think you are interested in the history of dictionaries or how Ms. Stamper came to work as a lexicographer, but spend a few sentences in her company, and you will realize that you are, in fact, fascinated. Her “sprachgefühl”—or sensitivity to language—will spark your curiosity about how we came to speak the way we do and what our words really mean, whether it’s “pumpernickel” (translation: fartgoblin) or “nude,” or “marriage,” or “muggle.”

Stamper spoke to the Amazon Book Review by phone. For further entertainment, you can watch her discuss odd plurals, the difference between "which" and "that," and other interesting lexical conundrums in the Merriam-Webster “Ask the Editor” videos on YouTube or at Merriam-Webster.com. Stamper also has her own blog, which she’s named, with a hat tip to Samuel Johnson, “harm·less drudg·ery.”



Amazon Book Review: At Merriam-Webster, your job is, essentially, to define words based on how people use them. What makes someone good at that?

Kory Stamper: Well, I think the first characteristic is that you have to be comfortable working alone. It’s entirely solitary. The second is that you really have to bring a dispassionate and critical eye to the language while devoting yourself wholly to the language. A lot of people liken it to living a monastic life, but more than that, you have to set aside your own prejudices about how language works in favor of this dispassionate but intense study of how language actually works. That’s the hard part. If you love language and you’re at all good at it, the reason you are is because of all these rules. Then you discover those rules are not rules, they’re just some dude’s opinions most of the time. That can be a hard thing. If you devote yourself to being good at grammar, it’s hard to find out that that isn’t grammar. You are quickly disabused of the notion that that language is either right or wrong. Instead language is about context.

Were there signs you’d be good at this when you were a child?

I was a voracious reader and an early reader, and I read everything—I just read everything. I would read the encyclopedias in our house—and we had two, a medical encyclopedia and the World Book Encyclopedia that my parents scrimped and saved for. I liked reading about things for the joy of reading about things, not necessarily to learn about things, or for school, but just because I liked reading. It was reading that was important to me. That was pretty much the only sign that I could do this job.

How did your family feel about your reading habits?

They thought I was weird. My family is very loud. They like football; they like arguing politics at the dinner table. If there’s free time there’s an assumption that you are going to be playing a game. I was not like that. I was very quiet. I spent most of my adolescence locked in my room, which my parents thought was unfathomable. Looking back, I’m sure they were grateful that that’s all I did as a teenager, but at the time they thought, “This is a little much.”

My parents are quite literate but not at all literary. My dad reads all the Clive Cussler books and Hot Rodder magazine on the john. So obviously, they knew I was writing a book, and when I sent them a copy, my dad called and said, “This is nice! This is a nice book! I’m going to read it.” My dear, sweet parents...you know, they read, but they’re not reading Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace. I said, “It’s OK if you don’t read it.” They’re both very proud of me. They way my mom put it was, “I guess all that reading finally paid off.”

Did you initiate the video series for Merriam-Webster? Video and dictionaries seem like an interesting, but not obvious, combination.

No, we had a director of marketing and she was like, “Well, we need to increase engagement on the website,” and she said, “We have all these editors who define but also write ‘Word of the Day.’ We have this resource no one knows we have. We should let them know we have this resource!” She approached a bunch of editors and said, “Would you be willing to write and be in videos?” and a bunch of editors said, “No way.”

She came to me and said, “I think you’d be good at this; do you want to give it a shot?” I said, “Sure.” We had assumed they’d be a one-off.

We did four of them, from memory, in one take. They were super homespun and plain. In one I was wearing a blouse that was short sleeved and cut in such a way that from my shoulders up it looked like I was wearing scrubs. We thought we’d do 12 videos, but they took off, which I don’t think any of us were expecting. One video went viralthat was on the plural of "octopus." It must have 2 million views. It was a weird thing. Suddenly all three of us who do the videos were internet sensations. Not what you bargain for when you take this job.

“Nude” and “marriage” are hot-topic words in your book—they’re words that have changed meaning over time, and there are political implications to those changes. Any you’re working on now?

I am not. This is the funny thing about lexicography. There are a handful of words that will always be controversial and difficult. They’re obscene words or they’re slurs. You just assume those will be hard to handle, no matter what you do. The definition of “nude” was a great example. It had been 7 to 10 years since we had really gone through the evidence, and that was when the meaning of the word really changed.

The words that take the most brainpower are not words that anyone would think would do. They’re also not words that most people look up. I spent a month defining the word “take.” People would say, “Why would you waste your time on ‘take’?” It’s evidence of a very objective and democratic approach to all language. “Take” should get just as much attention as the f-word or “marriage.” Lexicography really views all words on pretty level playing fields in terms of how you approach defining. Every word gets equal lexicographical attention because every word that comes under your review is there for a reason. It’s not my job to judge whether people use the word worthily or whether they should use that word at all.

How has the digital age changed the nature of what you do?

Social media gives you a direct link now to people who use dictionaries and can comment on entries directly. It’s sometimes great and sometimes overwhelming. On the positive side, the internet gives lexicographers more people to draw on. If I have a regional word in my batch, like “Yins,” and I define it as only being used in Pittsburgh, as soon as that’s published online, we might hear from people from Ohio, who might also use “Yins.” That’s an interesting way that lexicographers can collect more information about words.

The internet means that people don’t engage with the dictionary as a dead book now. They see it as something that’s active, that people are working on. It helps raise people’s awareness that it’s always developing.

I learn new words on Twitter anytime I go and take a look at something. I think technology opens up more language to people so there are more words and phrases they want to know about. Technology in general opens a wider world of language to anyone who uses it.

What do you think about the future of dictionaries?

In terms of the future of dictionaries, there’s no way you can guess at the technology that’s coming. There are lots of people who are like, “Yech, why do we need dictionaries?” We still need some objective definition of language. We are starting to become suspect of everything we see online. To know that this is how dictionaries are made, this is how they approach words, I think is really invaluable and more important than ever as we move forward. I think we like to know that there’s an objective meaning to something. Right? That a word’s definition is actually what it means and not what some guy in an office may think it should mean.

What do you read for pleasure?

It’s very hard for me when I’m reading for pleasure to not also read for work. I read everything. I read a lot a lot of fiction and I’m a very avid rereader of fiction. It drives my husband bonkers because I’ll read a book over and over again. I binge-read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. I’ve been on a big Shirley Jackson kick; I binge-read We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

I’ve been reading more nonfiction, though I read it in a very different way. I don’t read a ton of magazines or newspapers because I do that a lot at work.

Recently I’ve been on a graphic novel and comic book kick. I found a couple of really fascinating graphic novels/comics. I’ve [enjoyed] the new Ms. Marvel series—not something I’d normally be drawn to, but I love the way the main character is written.

There’s the comic books series Saga, which a friend turned me on to, and John Lewis’s March, which I’m working through with my teenage daughter.

One place lexicographers could probably do a little better is in researching language use in graphic novels, comics, sci-fi, and fantasy. There are types of language you’ll find that will originate in sci-fi and fantasy. “Kryptonite” is a great example. It was a Superman thing for decades and then seeped out into broader language. They’re important historical resources.

If you hadn’t become a lexicographer, what do you think you’d have done?

I love science. In fact, before I found this field I was planning on doing lab work in biology. I thought being a pathologist seemed super sexy.

Or honestly, I worked as a baker and I loved working in the bakery. I love tactile work. I could see myself sticking it out and being a baker. I love the physicality. You go home at night and you are sore and covered with flour and dough conditioner and you’ve gotten something done.

Thank you so much, Kory. It’s been fun talking to you.


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