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How a dictionary writer defines English


When you spend all day in English
and everything around you is words, you know, I imagine it’s like
being a podiatrist where like the whole world is feet. My name is Kory Stamper. I’m an associate editor at Merriam Webster,
where I write dictionary definitions, and my new book is called “Word by Word:
The Secret Life of Dictionaries.” For a while, people would ask what I did and
I would just say I work in publishing, because the minute I said, “Oh, I write dictionaries,”
the first two things out of their mouth were, “Oh that’s so cool,” and, “Oh my God, I better
watch what I say around you.” Which was so sad to me because that’s not
my job. My job isn’t to police what people say,
or how people talk, or things that people write even. My job is to record the language and not impose
some sort of order on it. I kept my practice defining slips. So, every definer, you practice writing dictionary
definitions. There is one in here that I kept because it
was the only definition the director of defining said, “Oh, that’s pretty good,” and
didn’t mark up. And that is “bird strike”, which I defined
as a collision in which a bird or flock of birds hits the engine of an aircraft. The editorial floor is incredibly quiet. Not just really quiet, but sort of sepulchrally
quiet. And you also know that when people are looking
up, if you happen to be walking by someone’s cubicle and they’re looking up and staring
at nothing, you know that you absolutely should not interrupt them. So there’s two different processes that go
behind it. The first is a daily thing, and that’s called
reading and marking. And that’s where editors spend some time
every day basically reading sources. And you’re reading sources to find new or
interesting vocabulary. The second part is defining. So when we revise a dictionary, we go through
it A to Z, and you take all the instances for the word
you’re looking up.You’re matching up the word and its contextual use with the existing
dictionary definition. Sprachgefühl is a German word that we borrowed
into English. It’s a word that refers to the feeling for
language. You have to be able to look at a sentence
and know that “planting out the lettuce” is different from “planting information.” It’s really sort of where you can look at
the warp and weft of language and read it. So for a word to get into the dictionary,
it needs to meet three basic criteria. The first criteria is widespread use. If something’s used in the Wall Street Journal
and Vibe, then you figure that’s pretty widespread use. The second one is it needs to have a shelf
life. Once words get into the dictionary, they tend
to stay in dictionaries. The shelf life of a word really depends. There are other words that have very very
little use for a lot of time and then suddenly have tons of use. The indian word korma is a great example. It first was used in English back in the 1830s
or 1840s, and it had very very very little use, really until the 1990s when people started
eating lots of Indian food. So korma’s a more recent addition to the
dictionary, even though it’s almost 200 years old at this point. The third criteria is a word has to have meaningful
use — which means it has to have a meaning. The example I trot out is antidisestablishmentarianism
— “Freddy, can you spell antidisestablishmentarianism?” “Uh…no.” — which most people know as a long word,
but it doesn’t get used much in print. It gets used as an example of a long word. “Antidisestablishmentarianism.” [Laughter from crowd]
You want to make sure that the word has a meaning and is not just an example of letters
smushed together. People think of English as something that
needs to be defended. It’s this beautiful pristine tower…actually
it’s much more like a child. It’s an organic, living thing. You bring English into being, and then the
minute that it gains gross motor skills, it goes right where you don’t want it to go. So there are two main approaches to language. One is prescriptivism, one is descriptivism. Prescriptivism essentially promotes the best
practices of English. Prescriptivism is, by its nature, exclusionary. Descriptivism on the other hand, as an approach
to language, it follows where language goes. Dictionaries exist on more of the descriptivist
end of the spectrum. Dictionaries record language as it is used,
not as you think it should be used. “Irregardless.” “Not a word.” “Well, irregardless of that.” Irregardless is a word that people have a
specific and vehement hatred for. Irregardless, really for about 150, 175 years
has been pegged as being uneducated, hickish, representative of people who don’t speak
English very well. It’s also entered into dictionaries, which
just infuriates people. It does me no good as a lexicographer to enter
irregardless into the dictionary if I don’t tell you that when you use it, people are
going to think you’re a moron. So all dictionaries are descriptivist and
prescriptivist. “It’s too dangerous.” What is the drama with decimate? “With the soul sword activated, Valentine
could decimate the entire downworld.” It is a favorite of people called etymological
fallicists, who believe that modern words should only mean what they meant in their
origin language. Decimate comes from a Latin verb that means
to select and kill one tenth of. You just don’t really need a word that refers
to selecting and killing one tenth of all that often. So decimate gained what’s called an extended
sense, which means that people began using it to refer to widespread devastation, or
killing of a bunch of people. They also will ignore things, like that the
word stew used to mean whorehouse. Nobody says, “I hate that we call this chunky
soup stew, stew should only be used to refer to a whorehouse.” They want English to be pure. And in their minds, purity means that you
stick to the root word as closely as you can. And that’s fine, except that’s just not
how English works. People think of English as this monolithic
thing, but it’s really not, it’s much more like a river. Every dialect of English is its own current. And all of these currents come together to
make this fairly cohesive looking ribbon of water. But every one of those is integral to the
direction of English. Controlling water’s pretty difficult. If you say, well, you know, “Youth slang
really is stupid, and there’s no point in paying attention to it,” you’re actually
stopping this really vital way that new words come into English. If you say business jargon is ugly and stupid,
and no one should ever use business jargon, I might agree with you, but that’s also
another important part of how words come into English, and that’s an important way that
words are created. This idea of English being a river really
sort of celebrates that every single part of the language is important for the whole. It’s all part of the same thing, you need
all of it for it to survive. I am so happy to explain what those dots in
the middle of the words are. Those dots in the middle of the words are
not marking syllables. What they are is for people who have to break
a word. So the whole word won’t fit on a line, so
they have to find a place to put the hyphen and put the rest of the word. If you walk away and that’s all you remember
of this, you will make every dictionary editor the happiest person in the world.

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