Answers I Wish I Could Send: Etymology Edition

[Ed. note: one in a series.  Emails are only lightly edited for–if you can believe it–clarity.]

Your online dictionary defines “peak” as “a pointed or projecting part of a garment; especially :  the visor of a cap or hat”; and tentatively derives the word from “pike”. This is false. “Peak” derives from “beak” (which is why “bill” is a synonym). If I am correct, your definition should be modified.

Your logic is unassailable: “peak” looks like the word “beak,” and both hats and birds have a bill. Or rather, only the hats that truly matter–good American hats–have a bill. I don’t know why we didn’t see this before.

Oh, wait–we didn’t see it before because that’s not how etymology works. Imagine being tasked with creating ancestral photo albums for everyone in your family. You start with your second-cousin; you have, as your guide and starting point, a photo of that cousin that was taken yesterday. You are led to a large, dusty room that is overflowing, Hoarders-style, with pictures. The pictures go back hundreds of years, and several are stained or torn so badly that you can only guess at who the person in frame is. Some of those pictures will be of this cousin; many of these pictures will be of people who look vaguely like your cousin; many will be of other people you don’t know; there are several of Stinky, the neighbor’s dog. The door behind you creaks shut and locks. There are closed doors to your EAST and SOUTH; to your NORTH is a dimly lit brass lantern.

This is etymology. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

The reason that there are so few etymologists in the world is not for lack of education or desire; it’s because etymology is really frickin’ hard sometimes. Lines of derivation aren’t always clear, and you don’t just need a pretty good hint that one word derives from another, but a whole corpus full of literature that supports that. So if we give an etymology for something–even if we qualify it with “probably”–then you can expect that there’s some actual evidence for that.

 In the case of “peak,” it looks likely that it is an alteration of the earlier word “pike.” Did you know that both “peak” and “pike” were spelled “pyke” at one point? Granted, it was a point about 600 years ago now, so unless you read Middle English for fun and profit, you probably don’t know that. Etymologists do, though, because it is their job to read Middle English for “fun” and (snort) “profit.”  Not all hope for your theory is lost, however: most scholars qualify the “pike” etymology with a “probably” or “possibly.”  If we discover that “peak” and “beak” both came from some crazy Proto-Indo-European root that means “to be conspicuous to idiots,” then we will gladly update our entry.

 Question: I looked up the word “mien” and noticed the following etymology:

Origin of MIEN

by shortening & alteration from “demean”

First Known Use: 1522

However, in French, they have the same word which can mean (1) mine (mining) or even (2) someone’s expression or outward appearance.

The world is abundant, mon ami. There are many orthographic combos that appear in languages around the globe, as pervasive as late-fall ennui. That doesn’t necessarily mean that all those words are related.

Think of it: a whole life’s experience–love, death, the rains in Provence, her kiss in Milan, the flowers Mémère used to set out at dinner–to be summed up using a handful of symbols. Though we live life together, we experience it alone. The form sin shows up in English and Spanish and Norwegian and Irish and Vietnamese–it even shows up in the language of man’s dreams (Esperanto). Yet none of these sins are related. So many worlds, so few characters to share an experience. It is inevitable that we should tread on each other’s words and give them our own meanings.

In short: the English “mien” really is a shortening of “demean,” and even if it was influenced by the French mien, that is not its origin. Everything dies.

I recently read, in, I believe, the Webster’s Unabridged version, that the origin of the term “Nosy Parker” was unknown~~I believe that this term originated from a series of movies, in which the lead actor was Lionel Barrymore,known as Dr. Gillespie~~these movies, each with a different title, featured Dr. Gillespie in the lead role as not only a doctor, but a solver of mysteries~~he is wheelchair bound in each of the series, and is looked after, fretted over, and followed around by his nurse, Miss (or Mrs.) Parker~~she is constantly trying to find out what he is up to, and listens through the door, reads his messages, whatnot~~hence~~she was nosy Parker, the nurse who could not let anything alone~~~This,I feel, is where the term “Nosy Parker” comes from~~~

Please excuse my tardy reply; I was hypnotized by your tildes. They have a very William Carlos Williams feel to them:

reads his messages, whatnot



~~she was nosy Parker

the nurse who could not

let anything



In any event, that would be a wonderful etymology for “Nosy Parker,” but alas, time is not on your side. “Nosy Parker” first showed up in print in the late 1800s; Lionel Barrymore’s movies date to the 1940s. Generally speaking, the word shows up in print after it is coined, not before, though we cannot discount the existence of a band of time-traveling linguistic trolls who have an inexplicable love of Lionel Barrymore.

Sadly, this state of affairs is fairly common in etymology: there is a perfect, spot-on story about how a word came to be, and then the horrible linear nature of time (as we experience it) screws it all up. “Doozy,” for instance, is supposedly a shortened form of “Duesenberg,” a make of tres classy cars. But “doozy” shows up before any Duesenbergs do. Is that disappointing–or, dare I say, a waste of a good car? Yes. Yes it is. But no amount of wishing, willing, secret incantations, or flux capacitors will change the facts.

I’d just like to say, though your app states that the origin of the word “gorp” is “unknown,” most everybody knows that it is an acronym for “Good Old Raisins and Peanuts.”

Well, you know scholars: dumber than most.

Here is a truth universally acknowledged: we like language to make some goddamned sense. Most of the complaints we hear about how horrible English is are because it (or one of its constituents) “doesn’t make logical sense.” And if something’s origin is shrouded in mystery, it is, in a way, nonsensical–there’s no reason, event, or word combo we can blame for that word. Calling trail mix “gorp” for no discernible reason goes against our instinct for causality and our desire for tidiness. So we invent reason: “Good Old Raisins and Peanuts.” After all, trail mix has raisins in it (sometimes) and peanuts in it (sometimes), and raisins and peanuts are both good (debatable) and old (sure, why not). There it is! There’s our reason! Why can’t you just see it?

Acronymic etymologies are, by and large, total horseshit. Acronyms weren’t really popular until the late 19th century, and very, very few of them have entered English as words. So, no, it’s not “Port Out Starboard Home” or “Constable On Patrol” or “Ship High In Transit,” even though these are all logical within a flawed and totally imaginary system. No, it’s not “Fornication Under Consent of King” or “Found Under Carnal Knowledge” or “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” or “Fornication Unallowed in the Commonwealth of the King.” (I mean, ponder for a moment: if sexytimes were actually outlawed in the Commonwealth, don’t you think that there’d be ample record of it?)

The origins of the word “jut.”  It seems obvious the word originates with the name of the Danish peninsula Jutland described in Wikipedia as a peninsula that “juts out” in Northern Europe.  Although there may not be a documented relationship, are you able to include the obvious in the possible origins words?

Yes, we are absolutely able to do that. It’s obvious: Jutland JUTS OUT, so clearly we got the word “jut” from Jutland. While we’re at it, we are also going to change the word “boot” to “bitaly,” and I have to revise the etymology of “ballsack” to note that we probably got it from the name of that famous ribald, Honoré de Balzac.

Etymologies in dictionaries are pretty much about documented linguistic relationships. As fitting as it is that Jutland happens to jut out into the Baltic like it does, it is merely a happy coincidence. Sometimes these happy coincidences also lead to documented linguistic relationships, but we always make a note of it. “Redingote,” for instance, is a funny little word that refers to a style of coat worn by men in the 18th century. It looks sort of like “riding coat,” doesn’t it? And hey, look at that: we have documented evidence that “redingote” is actually the French adaptation (borrowed back into English) of the English “riding coat”!

But it must all come back to the documentation. Etymologists are just crackpots with evidence behind them. We don’t truck much in variable origin stories–that’s really more DC’s and Marvel’s purview.

Question: I regard Webster’s very highly, and use it very much. But I am quite shocked about the lack of knowledge about so many Words’ origin, when the answer is just across the North sea. In Norwegian, Icelandic, Danish or Swedish. The Word QUALM is a very good example.

What about Finnish, huh? Or Faeroese? NOT “ACROSS THE NORTH SEA” ENOUGH FOR YOU?

It’s a common misconception among people who really, really love their native language a lot that their native language is the Ur-language, the language from which all other language sprang. This misconception is hard to counter: I mean, if you are positive that there is a family resemblance between Norwegian and, say, Amharic, then you are damned well going to see a family resemblance. “The word for ‘water’ in Amharic is /whah/ and in Norwegian it’s ‘vann’. SO OBVIOUS.”

Except, well, no. One of the things that etymologists must consider when weighing whether X word in Y language came from B word in C language is whether or not speakers of C language ever had contact Y language during the time that the word first showed up in Y language. If Norway gave English speakers the word “qualm,” then you’d think we’d have some clear evidence of that from the 1500s, when “qualm” showed up in English. But we don’t. We know–because, again, etymologists read all sorts of weird stuff–that there were similar words in a bunch of Germanic languages for the 200 or so years around when “qualm” showed up in English. But not in Norwegian. Not only that, but English speakers didn’t have a ton of exposure to Norwegians in the 1500s. We were more into the Dutch at that point, sorry.  So the likelihood that the English “qualm” came from Norwegian is <hearty laughter>.

To sum up: if there is an Ur-language from which all languages today descended, it is lost to time and it’s deffers not Norwegian. We are sorry to disappoint; thanks for writing.


Filed under correspondence, etymology, lexicography

Repossession: Reclaimed Slurs and Lexicography

[Ed. note: this post contains language that is considered extremely inflammatory. Caveat lector.]

People forward language articles to me all the time–usually the same article multiple times, until my inbox is nothing but language links and plaintive requests from to buy more booze, please. But no one forwarded me Talib Kweli’s recent Medium post on language, probably because it was about the history and uses of the word “nigger.” I asked one of my frequent-forwarders if he had seen the post. “I had,” he wrote, “but I figured you’d have already seen it. I was not going to be the one to forward you a post on the n-word.”

The n-word. I think about slurs on a regular basis, in part because I have to explain to people why they’re entered in some of their dictionaries. It’s not unusual for me to open my email in the morning and see a message with the subject “NIGGER”; after a decade of answering these emails, I still wince when I see the subject line, stark in black and white.

Language has power, and slurs are a remarkably tidy way of asserting that power. They are not simply  neutral descriptors for a person or a group of people (“she’s a lexicographer”), nor are they merely expressive terms used as a vent for the speaker’s emotions and which could be used of any person in any group (“she’s a rotten fucker”). Slurs are descriptors that target one characteristic or aspect of a group and denigrate a member of that group (or the whole group) on the basis of that one aspect (“she’s a spic”). They are cruelly ingenious: because they are often taboo, never to be spoken and never to be discussed, they are prone to gathering around them ancillary attitudes and stereotypes about the slurred. Someone called an “uppity nigger” or a “castrating bitch” or a “flamboyant faggot” can only ignore the comment and feel the mottle of rage and misplaced shame creep up their back: to turn around and call out the speaker only confirms the stereotype they were just slammed with.

But people who are denied the dignity of an honest response, over and over again, will get wily. Language belongs to everyone, oppressed and oppressor alike. And so those at the sharp end of those words have sometimes snatched them out of the hands of their attackers and owned them as labels. It’s effective: as Kweli notes, “Why wouldn’t you want to embody that which most scares your oppressor and change its meaning?”

But language is not a political system you can overthrow; it’s personal. Slur reclamation is risky business for both the oppressed, the oppressor, and the lexicographer.

Slurs are never a pleasant thing to define. Reading the citational evidence for them requires some internal preparation: you are about to see centuries of the ugliest ass-end of humanity on parade and it is your job not only to muscle through it, but to engage it, analyze it, explain it in detail. It is a cavalcade of suck, and you are its unwilling but unapologetic emcee. But when slurs are reclaimed, they become Janus-faced and fragmented, and what was once a straightforward (if horrible) usage is no longer.

Kweli ends his piece on “nigger” and “nigga”  with some practical usage advice:

Say nigger or nigga as much as you like, just be prepared to deal with the consequences of your actions. The consequences of context. The word has racial connotations, and those connotations are different for white people and black people, whether we choose to accept that or not. It’s about personal responsibility.

This is true, but the lexicographer looking to provide usage information can’t gloss over the “consequences of context.” If use of “nigger” or “nigga” really is about personal responsibility within context, and a lexicographer’s job is to explain how a word is generally used in context, how can a lexicographer possibly talk about the consequences of usage when they are unique to every individual speaker and his or her context? Some may think it’s socially appropriate to dismiss a white person’s use of the positive “nigga,” but it is not lexicographically appropriate to do so. If a language belongs to the whole of its speakers and a lexicographer must report on use, then for lexicographers, Eminem’s use of “nigger” is just as valid as Ice-T’s use of “nigger” is just as valid as Mark Twain’s is just as valid as Ted Joans’ is just as valid as the frothing racist Internet commenter’s–and that’s just looking at American uses of the word.

In the great ebb and flow of slur reclamation, lexicographers are often stuck knee-deep in the muck left in its wake, grubbing around for something solid to grab on to. Slurs may exist within a context, but much of that context is not just personal, it’s nonlexical. My male friend can complain about an early-morning meeting he didn’t want to participate in yet did so cheerily because he “wasn’t going to be a bitch about it,” and I know that he is not saying that whiny, uncaffeinated petulance before 7am is the purview of nasty women because I know him, and I know he likes turning a vocabularic expectation (“asshole”) on its head (“bitch”). But if the guy next to me on this flight, who I don’t know but who I already assume to be something of a douche because he has taken up the empty seat between us with his papers, his empty soda can, and half of his left leg, complains that he doesn’t want to be a bitch, but could I move my bag from the DMZ of unoccupied  seat, I will damn sure assume that he is denigrating women with that use of “bitch,” because he is, as I have already unerringly determined, something of a douche, and denigrating women is exactly what a douche would do.

Names good and bad are used in relationship, and lexicographers cannot possibly parse the intricacies of every relationship on the planet (because lexicographers’ closest relationships are with their favorite pens and their coffee mugs, and these are generally nonverbal entities). This goes triple for reclaimed slurs. You’re asking people who took a job specifically because it promised almost no human interaction to delve into the grossest, wrongest human interactions in history and the efforts to right or repair or avenge those interactions, and then concisely describe the lexical fallout from centuries of that. Can you imagine the sort of usage paragraph that would appear at an entry for “nigga” if we tried to accurately describe the word as it’s used by every American who uses or has opinions about it?

The positive “nigga” is derived from “nigger,” and as such, has a share in the controversy surrounding “nigger.” It is generally spoken and used primarily within groups of young black men who are friends, except when it is used in groups of young white men who are friends, or young Latino or Hispanic men who are friends, or young Asian men who are friends, or other groups of young men of various races and ethnicities who are friends. It is rarely used among friends without permission (usually implicit) from the majority of the group, or from the person in the group who may take the most offense at use of this word. Though current evidence shows its use is most common among men, it is also sometimes used by women who are socialized within a community where use of “nigga” is tolerated or encouraged, unless that woman is considered an outsider to the community regardless of whether she truly is or not. The earliest modern uses of  the positive “nigga” are attested to in rap and hip-hop songs by black artists, though its use within the black community is hotly contested from both within the black community (in so far as you can call the majority of black Americans “the black community” without being reductionist and therefore possibly racist) and without. Use of “nigga” between different  groups considered minority or marginalized is also a point of contention. Only use “nigga” if your friends use “nigga” and you feel comfortable enough within that social circle to risk alienating people you love, or unless you are a rap or hip-hop recording artist who feels the same about his or her or thon’s listening community.

The result is that dictionaries and lexicographers have taken an imperfect tack: we sit and wait until “usage settles out,” as we say. We are reticent–and sometimes, not equipped–to enter into the difficult conversation about how slurs are used and how they are changing, because that involves entering into the difficult conversation about human pain and oppression. And this is hard for us, because lexicography has been the province of privilege since the year dot. You look at old pictures of any dictionary company and what do you see? A tweed of old, white guys with Ivy League degrees. Hell, the biggest scandals to come out of lexicography  are that the Oxford English Dictionary was edited by a Scotsman and that the editors of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary had abandoned all human decency and entered “ain’t” (a word that had been around for centuries, had been in dictionaries before the Third, and has not incited riots or led to anyone’s death, as far as I know). There are plenty of modern lexicographers who don’t fit the old paradigm, who want to delve into some of these questions thoughtfully and objectively. We are nonetheless scared shitless that, even with all the facts in front of us, and even with all our training, we are still blinded enough by our privilege and institutional baggage that the minute we ask “What about ‘nigga’?”, we will unwittingly perpetuate oppression.

It’s a funny thing: lexicography as a discipline has to deal with the dirty, ugly ways that language has been used and abused by and for power, and yet the tradition is one of British genteelness, of Yankee restraint, of safe distance from the political realities of some words. We bleat out the caveat that dictionary definitions describe “words, not things,” but as often as we draw that line in the sand, lexicographers also must admit that sometimes, the word is the thing.

About ten years ago, I got a phone call from a gentleman who found “nigger” in his family dictionary. I vividly remember the call; his polite but bristling questions, the stuffiness of the little phone booth I was in. I assumed that he wanted the word removed from the dictionary, so I explained to him why it was entered, gave some of the history of the word, how we don’t make up the words that go into the language but just record them. He listened–thoughtfully, honestly–to my explanation, and then said, “I understand that. But I’m thinking of my 10-year-old daughter. The word ‘nigger’ shouldn’t exist for her. She should not have to confront that in a dictionary, which is supposed to tell her what words really mean. So I want you to explain to her–she’s sitting right here–that the first part of that last sentence in that definition is wrong.”

I blinked hard. The first part of that last sentence. We don’t write definitions in sentences. While I stared at the entry, it hit me over the head like a shelf of Unabridgeds: he was not complaining about any of the definitions of “nigger” which we mark as “offensive.” He was referring to the last sentence of the usage paragraph. That sentence begins, “Its use by and among blacks is not always intended or taken as offensive.”  The offense was that “nigger” is not always offensive.

Our conversation continued, but did not go well. Though we were each listening carefully, we talked past each other, worried that the other might be missing our point and so preemptively overexplaining our positions.

“Let me ask,” he said suddenly. “Do you have children?”

“Two,” I said. “Two daughters. In fact, one is almost your daughter’s age.”

“And how would you feel,” he continued, “if your children had grown up–I don’t know what race you are–hearing their friends use this word and then being told it was fine? How would you as a parent feel if you had been called this word all your life by people who set fire to your yard and chased you out of your town, or threw rocks and bottles at you on your way to school, even after Jim Crow was defeated; if everywhere you went, this was the word that the world saw you as and threw at you until you believed that was all you’d amount to–how would you feel, after all that, if your little girl came home and told you the dictionary said that being called a nigger was no big deal?”

I couldn’t give him a lexicographer’s answer. We weren’t just talking about words any more.


Filed under general, lexicography, making word sausage

Stigmatized and Still Alive: English in the Time of “Ain’t”

School has started up back in the U.S., which means that my Facebook feed is full of quizzes like “do you have better grammar than this fruit bat?”, and not-terribly-funny e-cards about the Oxford comma. These are the bane of September, and I’ve come to treat them like I treat the swelter of July: if I lay down on the living room floor and whimper quietly to myself for long enough, it’ll eventually be winter and I can be a human being again.

This September, however, yielded up a special treat: my FuhBook timeline was full of links to an article titled “A Step-By-Step Proof That Happiness Depends Partly On Grammar.” So many BookFaced people were sharing this article, complete with comments like “YES, THIS!”, that I peeled myself off the rug to see what all the fuss was about.

The article is an intro and apology (in the Greek sense) for a book written by N.M. Gwynne, M.A. (Oxon). The initial-loving Gwynne is a retired British businessman-cum-schoolmarm, so I think I’m safe in calling him a priggish eccentric. His article begins with a proof[1]–“yes, a proof that really is valid!” he trumpets, likely while waving his arms about, wearings his trousers as a jacket, and frightening pigeons and children–that good grammar leads to a good life. Students of Logic, start your engines:

1. We can’t think without words.

2. If we don’t use words correctly, then we can’t possibly think correctly.

3. If we can’t think correctly, we can’t make good decisions.

4. If we can’t make good decisions, we’re going to royally screw up our lives and the lives of people around us.

5. If we royally screw up our lives and the lives of people around us, then we won’t be happy.

If you pulled up short somewhere between 1 and 2, congratulations: you have more sense than Gwynne’s publisher, who thought that a book based on this proof was a good idea (and no, it’s not part of their humor line).

Knopf’s press sheet for Gwynne’s book begins with, “The greatest danger to our way of life is the decline of grammar.” I read this and returned, face-down, to the living room rug. Not war, not poverty, not obesity, not hunger, not sloth, not ADHD, not corporate welfare, not social welfare, not an ineffectual government, not a giant asteroid, not $2 Chicken McNuggets. The decline of grammar. I put a pillow over my head for good measure.

The insistence that “bad grammar”–by which Gwynne and plenty others really mean “usages I don’t like”–will eventually lead to anarchy makes me want to burn shit down, man. Not only is it a pathetic attempt at fearmongering on the most inane scale ever, but history proves otherwise. It is possible for “bad usages” to thrive in ignominy, lexical bastards, without doing any damage at all to English.

“Ain’t” is a perfect example of this. No one’s quite sure where “ain’t” came from–some etymologists link it to the contraction “amn’t” for “am not,” and some to “han’t” for “have not,” and we know its earliest form was “an’t” for “are not” and “am not”–but it was certainly in vogue during the 17th century, when, according to some, Charles II of England decided to make it A Thing. Its origins are murky because it was primarily spoken: its earliest uses are in plays and dialogue from the early 1600s, including the line “these shoes a’n’t ugly,” uttered by a character sublimely named Lord Foppington. God bless those Restoration dramatists.

But by the end of the Restoration, contractions became verba non grata. They were “the deplorable Ignorance that for some Years hath reigned among our English Writers; the great Depravity of our Taste; and the continual Corruption of our Style” (Jonathan Swift, The Tatler). Thank the good Lord the 18th century had Jonathan Swift, a beacon of sense and taste and literary judgment (“an’t you an impudent lying slut”–Jonathan Swift, Journal to Stella).

The disparagement of “ain’t” went on from there. It was derided as an Americanism–by a guy we let sign the Declaration of Independence!–and branded as illogical (“A contraction must surely retain some trace of the resolved form from which it is abbreviated. What, then, is “ain’t”?“). If negative contractions in general were a blotch on English’s fair complexion, then “ain’t” was essentially the flesh-eating bacteria of the 19th and 20th centuries.

To prove how horrible “ain’t” was, popular novelists like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and William Thackeray put it in the mouths of despicable, inelegant people–thereby perpetuating its use. It began showing up in other places: fixed constructions like “ain’t I” and “things ain’t what they used to be”; in letters and correspondence, where it was a mark of a close relationship; and in reporting and fiction, when the author used it intentionally to “down-talk” into a lower, more working-class register. In short, as vulgar as it was, people kept using the damn thing.

Finally, John Opdycke, a usage maven of the early 20th century, took matters into his own hands. WAKE UP, SHEEPLE:





It was a strong statement, and though it took time, people submitted to Opdycke’s wisdoNOOOoooooooo–

Louis Jordon, you majestic troll, you.

Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby (1944)













“Ain’t” has been maligned for most of its existence, and yet a great dictionary notes, “although widely disapproved as nonstandard and more common in the habitual speech of the less educated, ain’t … is flourishing in American English.”

You know what else is flourishing in American English? The rest of American English. In spite of the wrong-headed “ain’t,” a word that just about no one likes but everyone uses, we’ve still managed to communicate with one another beautifully. In fact, it’s almost as if people are able to use “ain’t” and still think clearly, act rationally, do rightly, live happily, and otherwise verb adverbially in a generally positive way.

That’s what makes Gwynne’s proof so ridiculous. There are people in the world who speak beautifully, whose powers of rhetoric and usage are keen, and yet who are nonetheless horrible people who wreak havoc in people’s lives. Yes, fine, Godwin’s Law invoked: I’m talking about Hitler. But we don’t even need to look that deep into the heart of grammatical darkness. We all know someone who is 100% orthodox in their grammatical opinions, spotless as a lamb, and whose life is still a shambles.

Let’s flip the proof: what about those of us with unhappy, messy lives? If my friend’s husband walks out on her, are you claiming, Gwynne, that it ultimately stems from the fact that she misuses “beg the question”? For I might take issue with that, Sir, and indeed claim you are a witless jackass.

I think English is pretty great, and I believe that she’s resilient and far more nuanced than Gwynne would have you think. But more than that: I think that people (for the most part) are pretty great and I believe that they are more nuanced than Gwynne would have you think. Perhaps for some, good grammar leads to happiness. I am glad for those people. I am also glad for the people for whom personal happiness doesn’t depend a good goddamn on grammar. N. M. Gwynne, who by his own proof must be the happiest person on the planet, who is so confident in his happiness that he states “I am on the point of making history,” has made, to my count, at least two grammatical errors in the dedication of his book, and yet he doesn’t seem any worse off for it. That might be proof enough.


[1]. For your great patience, I now present to you the logical proof that I discovered written into the back cover of my 10th-grade Geometry text book, and which I thought was so amazing that I memorized it and nothing else in Geometry.

A Proof To Establish How Many Legs A Horse Has

  1. Horses have an an even number of legs.
  2. They have two legs in back and forelegs in front.
  3. Two plus four is six.
  4. Six is an odd number of legs for a horse.
  5. The only number which is both odd and even is infinity.
  6. Therefore, horses have an infinite number of legs.


Filed under grammar, peeving and usage, the decline of English

Sharing The Wealth: A Contest For You

I have just finished one of Those Proverbial Days, due in large part to some particularly nasty editorial correspondence. One of those retreat-into-the-bunker-tell-my-kids-I-love-them-avenge-my-nerdy-death sorts of days.

Usually my pressure valve is Twitter, where I vent about the inanity of this vale of tears we call “Letters to the Dictionary” in 140 characters or less. But that is frankly a selfish release: I whine and moan about how crazy our correspondents are, and you must endure said whining regardless of whether you want to endure it or not.

This is the part where I should repent of my selfishness and tell you that I’m going to stop burdening/bothering you while you are getting vitally important updates from KimKierkegaardashian, but let’s be honest: we all totes know I’m not going to do that. I will, however, sweeten the deal by introducing:


i want you all to pay very close attention to the juxtaposition of the tiles, i worked really hard on that


The rules are simple. The next time I tweet some dazzling folly, check your bingo card to see if it includes the comparison I just tweeted. If we have been deemed worse than, say, everything–and we no doubt will be–mark the appropriate square on your card with the date of my tweet. 

The first person to get bingo (that is, an unbroken line of five answers across the card vertically, horizontally, or diagonyougetthepicture) and tweet a picture of your completed bingo card to me will receive either:

  • a copy of the most recent Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, signed by me, OR
  • a year’s access to Merriam-Webster Unabridged on me, and a tweeted picture of me giving your card a thumbs up.

If you already possess both of these things, then a) you are a magnificent human being, beatific and too wondrous to behold, and b) I’ll figure something suitably magnificent out.

A few notes. First, don’t poke the lexicographers and write in to compare us to something on this card. I no longer handle the email account that your note will likely be sent to, and we don’t want to irritate the editor who does handle that account. If she quits because 48 people suddenly wrote to compare us unfavorably to God, then I will have to handle that account again, and I promise you I will literally (sense 1) tear my hair out if I have to do that.

Finally, you should know that we have been deemed worse than every answer on this card at least twice, so yes, there is a chance that the “Ted Nugent” square will be playable in the future.

A post of real substance is coming. In the meantime, godspeed and good whining. 


Filed under Uncategorized

Editorial Correspondence: Introductory Paragraphs I Cannot Send

[For more on editorial correspondence, go here or here or most definitely here.]

Dear Sir:

Thanks for your email, in which you claim a “smirky blogger” has ruined English by telling you that the rule regarding the use of “that” and “which” is not based on actual usage. I’m the smirky blogger in question (though technically I’m a vlogger) and that’s not a smirk, but a medical condition. Thank you for bringing up such a painful subject; I hope I can be helpful.


Dear Sir:

Thanks for your all-caps email. I must confess I had a hard time following your complaint about the existence of the world “self-abuse” due to the tremendous pile-up of gerunds in your primary paragraph. “Immediately stressing and so much annoying damaging” indeed. This paragraph on masturbation is a form of masturbation in and of itself, and I congratulate you on this subtlety.


Dear Ma’am:

Thanks for your complaint about our app and your request for a free app upgrade as a consolation prize for hating our app so much. Your email was forwarded to me for response, which is a pity, because someone else would have deffers been nicer to you than I am about to be.


Dear Ma’am:

Thanks for your lengthy email about the meaning of the word “agnostic.” It’s an astonishing piece of writing in that it hardly uses any punctuation at all. But its real genius is that it delivers an almost-convincing argument that agnosticism is atheism is pantheism. I mean, wow: well done. Not many self-proclaimed agnostics can go from claiming that agnostics simply cannot know whether any deity at all exists to claiming that agnostics therefore worship no gods and all gods, which are in all things/everywhere. Before I respond to your request to change all the meanings of these words in all dictionaries throughout space and time, let me quote some Monty Python at you: “There’s nothing an agnostic can’t do if he doesn’t know whether he believes in anything or not.”


Dear Sir:

Thanks for your response. I am sorry to hear that the last person you were corresponding with was a crazy, unreasonable asshole, but I am not surprised in the least: the last person you were corresponding with was me. Since we’ve got a dynamic going, I hope you won’t mind if I continue to be crazy and unreasonable.


Dear Sir:

Thanks for your email. I’m impressed that you want to create your own dictionary and have therefore compiled a list of all the science words in our dictionaries. That said, I have to laugh at your suggestion that perhaps we define them for you, since defining is a major waste of your time. I’ll get our top editors on that right away: after all, we live for doing our jobs for no pay, no recognition, and in violation of our in-house ethics code and common sense. Hey, look at that, it’s already done! It’s called the Collegiate Dictionary and you can put your name on it for $155 million dollars.


Dear Student:

Thanks for your complaint that we don’t supply you with enough example sentences so you can complete your vocabulary homework without any effort on your part. Haha, YA BURNT!


Look, Guy:

This is the third time I’ve written back to tell you that we will not remove “spoon” from the dictionary. I don’t know why you keep writing, but I am really enjoying the amped-up hysteria and poutrage in this last email you’ve sent. Do you think you can wear me down by force of will or by repeatedly throwing an e-tantrum? Tant pis, si triste, mon ami: I am a lexicographer. I am impervious, placid, unfeeling as stone, and I care not a whit that I hurt your widdle fee-fees by refusing to comply with what is a patently stupid request. I am happy, however, to go one more round with you because I have nothing better to do, I’m sure.


Dear Richard from Toronto:

There are two ways to write a stranger and express your admiration for their work (in this case, the video series on the M-W site). The first is to focus on the content of the piece, thank the presenter for teaching you something new, and then express hope that we will continue to do such good work. The second is to send a slobbery, grunting note that ignores the content completely and instead praises (if that’s the word I want to use here) that presenter’s hair/eyes/makeup/wardrobe/body in fetishistic detail. Notes written in the first mode get a nice little response. Notes written in the second mode get passed around the office as an example of a) how amazing humanity is in the wrong sort of way, and b) why no one else on the editorial floor wanted to do these videos. But since you sent a love letter that began with an in-depth analysis of how dowdy we were before we fixed our hair, wore better makeup, and donned “more feminine” clothing, I’m going to shame you by name on the Internet! Richard from Toronto, King of the Douchebags, you give troglodytes a bad name. Your note is an affront to good sense, good grammar, and just plain good. As we say where I’m from, I wouldn’t piss on ya if you were on fire. OMG, OMG, look: I noticed you! Why are you butthurt that I noticed you? Isn’t that what you wanted? Why would you write in if you didn’t want me to notice you, YOU TEASE?


Dear Ma’am:

Thanks but no thanks for your email.




Filed under correspondence

In Defense of Talking Funny

[Ed. note: Five months! I know. My (very poor) excuse is that I was working on another big project that I can’t tell you about yet. In the meantime, here’s an extra-long post to pay you back for the extra-long wait.]

I was talking with a friend–well, a “friend”–about some of the videos we were about to shoot for M-W. We were at a crowded, chichi restaurant, the type of place where the waiters pull your chair out for you and ask if you want sparkling, still, or mineral water. In short, a place far above my usual grab-and-go, paper-napkins milieu. A place where it behooves you to not only look smart, but sound smart. A place where you’d use the word “behoove.”

So I was behooving, using some expansive vocabulary and trying not to think about how I was paying $12 for a glass of wine when I can buy a whole bottle of it for $12 at my local discount booze shack, when my friend interrupted me. “You’re saying that wrong.”

It was the cliché record scratch, a loud fart in church. “What?”

“‘Towards’. You’re saying it oddly– ‘TOE-wards’. It’s ‘TWARDS’.”

I blinked and dropped a forkful of frisée-glacé-reduction-foofaraw down my shirt. “It is?”

He looked unnerved: the English language is supposed to be my area of expertise. “It’s pronounced ‘TWARDS’. I mean, right? Here, we’ll ask the waiter.”

My stomach hit my shoes. “No, no, I’ll take your word for it.” And we attempted to go back to the conversation we had before I started talking about the videos. I say “attempted”: we did, in fact, have more conversation, though I don’t recall much of what was said. I was just trying to avoid saying the word “towards.”

Fast-forward a week and I’m sitting in the back conference room at Merriam-Webster. We’re two hours into my portion of the video shoot. Though we’re using “cool lights,” it’s 100 degrees in the room; my throat is raw; I am wearing enough makeup to cover the surface of the moon; my antiperspirant has long since given up the pH-balanced ghost and I am sweating through my clothes. I know that we are fast approaching the tipping point when I will end up slipping into complete incoherence and blinking idiocy, the point when I will not be able to say my very own name without getting it wrong, which means we need to finish this script quickly, quickly.

It is, of course, the script that features the word “towards.”

My reserves, which are naturally on the scanty side when you put me in front of a camera, were very low as we started. I tried to relax as I came up on “towards,” but I could feel my stomach tighten. “That’s the one that etymologists lean oh oh oh I am so ashamed I’ve been saying this word wrong my entire life how is that possible now is my chance to get it right  TWAAAAAAARDS,” I brayed like Balaam’s ass.

The director looked out from behind the monitor. “Um, okay,” she laughed. “Let’s try that again?”

It took five more takes, each sounding slightly less asinine before we moved on to the next script. Even now, I can’t watch the video because there is still a hint of ohmigod, ohmigod in my eyes as I say “towards.”

We finished; I raced back upstairs to the burlap comfort of my cubicle; I pulled up the entry for “towards” in the Online Dictionary.

hee-haw, motherfuckers I put my head down on my desk in relief. “I knew it,” I whispered, prompting my long-suffering cubicle mate to mutter, “I’m sure you did.”

Dialects are a funny thing: everyone speaks one, but we only notice them when they’ve been dislocated. They’re part of the reason why we have five listed pronunciations of “towards” in the Online Dictionary; they’re the birthplace of words both loved (“kerfuffle”) and despised (“irregardless”); they’re the linguistic air we live and move and have our being in. 

To get technical, dialects are varieties of a language that have their own set of speakers with their own vocabulary, grammatical rules, and accent, and they can be regional, socioeconomic, ethnic,  tonal, and even a combination thereof. American English has eight major dialects–or 24, or hundreds, depending on who you ask and what they define as a “dialect.” Most of us don’t just speak a dialect, but switch between several depending on where, why, and how we are. And this is frustrating for the people who think that language shouldn’t be bound by culture, era, or region: that one kind of English (usually theirs) is good enough for every single English speaker in the world, all the time.

You know what I mean. You’re on the bus, heading home from work. Some people are reading; some people are talking on their phones; some people are having loud, shrieking conversations with each other. (I am leaning against the window, hoping the swaying of the bus will jostle my after-work brain back into place.) Two teenagers are talking:

“Yeah, I aks him, how many tesses you gonna give us? And he’s all, I ain’t tell you that!”

“We better not have no tesses on Wednesday. I workin’ Tuesdays.”

“I hear that.”

At this point, I will close my eyes, because there will be at least one person on the bus (and usually it turns out to be the person sitting next to me) who will crane their neck to verify that the teens in question are black, and then will turn to me and sneer, “God, don’t they teach English anymore?”

I will keep my eyes closed, because I do not want to have this conversation right now. I do not want to open my eyes and stare sweet, smiling death at this person and inform them that what the teenagers are speaking is, in fact, English. I do not want to try to explain to this person–a person who is, no doubt, just as tired and carsick as I am–that the teenagers are speaking a dialect called African American Vernacular English, that the dialect is actually a rich and complex (albeit controversial) one, and that if the listener doesn’t like listening to AAVE, then they can stop eavesdropping on a conversation that doesn’t involve them.

Languages are made up of dialects. They fit together like jigsaw puzzles: remove one or two pieces and you’ll still be able to see the whole image, but the picture is incomplete nonetheless and you’re definitely not getting more than $0.50 for it at a garage sale. Oh, of course, you nod, dialects GOOD–and yet there are likely dialects you’d be happy to lose between the couch cushions or down the heating vent. It’s easy to decry the banning of a dialect you don’t encounter in a far-away school district; it’s much harder to live with the dialects that ride the bus with you. I get het up about dialect not just because I want dialects to flourish, but because, like most of us, I learned at one point that the dialects I spoke were regarded as uneducated or wrong.

I’ve lived the code-switching life. My parents spoke a combination of Western American English and Inland Northern American English; I went to school in a primarily Mexican and African-American neighborhood, where Chicano and AAVE were the primary dialects. But this is knowledge gained in hindsight: back then, I was a kid, dumb and free and trying to fit in. On the playground, I learned double-dutch and dozens; I’d use the quick, clipped up-talk of my Latin friends, then switch to the swingy, low-voweled cadence of my black friends. I called people “chica” and “homes”; I “-g”-dropped and /z/-swapped and had not a linguistic care in the world.

One day I was telling my mother about the school day when she cut me off. “Can you queet talkin’ like deese, because we don’t talk like deese? Drives me crazy.”

I was flummoxed. “I’m just talking,” I said.

“You sound Mexican,” she said, “and you’re not. If you’re not careful, your friends are going to think that you’re making fun of them.” It was my first introduction to sociolinguistics and the politics of dialect.

My classmates and I came of age before the Great Ebonics Controversy, but what boiled over in Oakland was simmering everywhere else. I watched my African-American friends split over sounding “white” and sounding “black.” One particularly nasty middle-school teacher told students that if he called on them and they spoke “improper English,” they’d receive a failing grade in class participation; more than once he told students to “learn the language we speak here in the U.S.” My friend Stephanie was incensed. We lay on our stomachs in her living room, doing our current events homework and talking about this teacher. She sneered, “I don’t need no old white man tellin’ me to learn English, ‘cuz I already speak it.” Her mother hollered from the kitchen, “I don’t need some, Stephanie. Some old white man.” 

Even my less-reviled dialect of birth proved problematic. When I moved east for college, I had to learn to code-switch again. I said “howdy” so many times that someone worked up the courage to ask if I lived on a ranch (no) and rode a horse to school (are you fucking kidding me?). If I let “well” slip into a polysyllabic smear, I could expect to hear someone respond with a “yeehaw.” I switched from “pop” to “soda,” from “sub” to “grinder.” It was in vain. “Wow,” my college roommate said to me the first time I met her, “you have an accent.”

“So do you,” I responded, and she riposted with exactly what I was thinking. “Nuh-uh,” she said. “No, I talk normal.”

Everyone, from the guy with the poshest British accent on record to me in full-on hick mode, thinks that they talk normally. And so they do: everyone learns language within a culture, a context, an era that is peculiar to them, and within that culture, context, and era, their speech is normal. That’s why, when we want to lampoon uncool parents in comedies, we have them either use the slang of their generation (“Groovy, man”) or butcher the slang of their children’s generation (“That plan sounds radical, my home bro.”) The language of their youth is outdated, and they haven’t mastered the language of today’s youth. They are linguistically out of joint, which leads to copious lulz.

People like to belong; the corollary is that we like to set up boundaries between us and them.  And so most of us struggle to accept that different ways of speaking are just that: different, not wrong. We’ve had a lot of correspondents write in recently to complain about Ebonics and how it’s ruining the purity of English &c. Ignoring the fact that “Ebonics” is a skunked and outdated term, used more to disparage than anything else, the complaints have touched on American-English spellings, the pronunciation of “nuclear,” and the existence of “irregardless”–none of which are unique to or markers of AAVE. Furthermore, lots of the constructions used in AAVE are also used in Southern American English. Are you sure it’s all AAVE’s fault?

The impulse to set up divisive boundaries runs deep: even though I’m a dialect lover (so much so that the first time I met a new colleague who grew up in Pittsburgh, I immediately pestered him to do the dialect, do it, do it, and wouldn’t leave him alone until he had), I’m not above sneering myself.

My youngest daughter is a crazy smart, crazy chatty girl who happens to have spent her formative linguistic years outside of Philadelphia. This means she has a terminal case of hoagiemouth: the odd diphthonged Philly O; the pronunciation /wooder/ for “water”; the way that she says the personal pronoun “I” as if she is reciting, in reverse alphabetical order and all at once, all the vowels we have in English.

One day I came home from work to find her playing videogames on the couch. “Have you done your homework?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she responded, “I’m done my homework.”

The cliché record scratch, the loud fart in church. “You’re what?”

“I’m done my homework.”

It’s a common construction in these parts: you hear every local with every level of education say, “I’m done my/the X.” And yet hearing it in the mouth of my daughter drove me–champion of dialect!–out of my goddamned mind, because so Labov help me, someday you are going to be in a job interview and you’re going to tell someone ‘you’re done your college education,’ and they are going to think you are a moron and you will never get a job, and then you will live with me forever.

That I code-switched as a kid–and was called out for not code-switching at home–was lost on me as I pictured this bright young woman, my baby, being called “stupid” because of that dialectal missing preposition. I tried to gently impress this on her.

She was unfazed. “Whatever,” she said, “you say ‘howdy’ and you got a job.”

“You just need to realize,” I fretted, “that people will judge you based on how you talk.”

“Mom,” she said, “I know.” Of course she knows: I’m judging her already.

Standard English (a dialect in and of itself, hey oh!) is the form of English used by the people with power and prestige, but it is a minority dialect. Most English speakers natively speak something besides Standard English. It’s also mutable as different groups with different speech patterns gain power and prestige. “Sunk” for “sank” was once derided as wrong, hickish, and uneducated in the U.S. Now it’s Standard English. “Aks” for “ask” isn’t illiterate: it was the original pronunciation of “ask” and appears in a number of American-English dialects. It’s ludicrous to think that the vast majority of people who use the “aks” pronunciation–people who, unlike lexicographers, go outside on a regular basis and have human interaction with a wide variety of people–don’t know that it’s not the currently accepted pronunciation.

So when you encounter dialect in the wild, instead of getting angry that another English speaker is ruining English, perhaps see it as a sign of acceptance. The speaker feels comfortable enough with you to let down their guard and speak in the most natural way possible. You might consider reciprocating. After all, we all sound funny and uneducated to someone out there. 


Filed under general, grammar, peeving and usage, the decline of English, Uncategorized

Book Review: Shady Characters*

If you are anything like me, then you are the worst sort of etymologist: the sort who will trace a word back as far as the record will allow then sit back and say, “Good. But why?” “Zinc” comes from the German Zink; “pepper” from the Greek peperi; the sports “jersey” comes from the name of one of the Channel Islands. This is all well and good, but why? I will finish the job before me and then have to fight the temptation to spend hours wending my way through lexical and narrative garden paths, reading ancillary information about the culture and historical moment in which a word is born.

In this respect, Keith Houston’s book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks [W.W. Norton & Co.] satisfies deeply. The book ostensibly covers the history and use of roughly 11 punctuation marks–one per chapter, with a few irony and sarcasm marks taken as a whole in the final chapter–though in the narrative of each mark’s birth and rise, we meet and hear about other marks. The chapter on the dash introduces us to the en dash, the em dash, the hyphen-minus, the em quad, the virgule, the commash, the colash, the semi-colash, the stop-dash, and a host of famous 18th century literary fornicators (Moll Flanders figures in prominently) and almost-fictional bumbling politicians (courtesy of Samuel Johnson’s political satires). The whole book reads this way: the first chapter on the pilcrow (¶) finishes up with a short note that Eric Gill, one of the preeminent typographers of the 20th century, was not just the creator of the Gill Sans and Perpetua typefaces, but also the sculptor of some racy life-sized statuary and accused posthumously of adultery, incest, child abuse, and bestiality. Try using Perpetua ever again without thinking of that.

Some stories are, by their very nature, less compelling that others. There’s no mention of bestiality in the story of the octothorpe (#), though you do get a little disquisition on the pound signs (both £ and #) and competing stories from Bell Labs about the origin of the word “octothorpe,” and unless you are really into commercial typography of the 1960s, you may not care much about the development of the interrobang. Overall, however, the stories presented are captivating. Houston’s research is superb–the endnotes take up a quarter of the book–and he is not tempted to explain away the odd twists or apparent contradictions in a symbol’s story. The at sign (@) was almost undone just as computing began; the dash and the hyphen were conflated into a nameless hyphen-dash-minus when typewriters came into use; the manicule, the most personal of typographical marks, made by individual readers to draw attention to a passage they found helpful, is now most frequently associated with commercial pointing hands.

Houston is not a professional typographer, but the tone of Shady Characters is both scholarly and accessible. For instance, the archaic punctuation symbols that gave rise to the hyphen, for instance, are exemplified in running English text, which is so much easier than trying to find a sublinear hyphen in a photo of a Greek papyrus. Assuming you can read papyri. Or Greek.

Shady Characters is also a beautifully typeset book, as any book on punctuation and typography should be. The hardcover is printed in two colors, and I know enough about book production to know what a headache all the special characters had to be during manufacturing. Mad props to book designers Abbate Design and Courier Westford Manufacturing.

My only quibble with the book (and a very minor quibble it is) is that some of the illustrations can be confusing or hard to read. One illustration of the Linotype justification mechanism, for instance, has 20 callouts but the caption only explains three of them, and some of the reproductions of papyri need slightly more contrast to be fully legible. And I have one caveat to the reader: this is a book that seems like it’d be well-suited to dipping into, skipping around in, and reading in small chunks. It is–provided you do so in order. Many later chapters mention the history or forebearers of symbols and marks covered in earlier chapters, and if you don’t know your diple from your asterikos, your head may be swimming.

If you like printing or typography, I heartily recommend the book. For a taste of what you’ll find, visit Houston’s blog Shady Characters.


*I was given a review copy of this book; I’m posting a review, however, because I liked it and think you would as well.


Filed under reviews

A Compromise: How To Be A Reasonable Prescriptivist

Dear Language Peever:

Welcome to harm•less drudg•ery! You are here because you googled something like “literally killed English” or “different than is wrong” or “irregardless not a word.” Allow me to introduce myself: I’m that lady from the dictionary that made that stupid video about “irregardless.” Behold: I am a dread descriptivist.

Before you stomp off in a fit of pique, hear me out (if only because I used the right “pique”). Many people assume you and I are on different sides of the Great Grammar Debate–in fact, you probably assume this–but we have much in common. We are both carbon-based life forms with an Internet connection, and we both care deeply about language. And I know that you, a would-be prescriptivist, are sick of defending proper English to the hoi polloi and us hippie-dippy no-rulez descriptivists. I know this because this hippie-dippy descriptivist is pretty damn tired of having this conversation with you, too.

So in a spirit of bonhomie, I’m reaching across the aisle: I’m going to give you tools to be an informed prescriptivist and then let you go on your merry, doomsaying way, never to tell you to lighten the hell up again. Here, for your erudition, are the Six Steps to Becoming a Reasonable Prescriptivist.

Step 1: Learn what prescriptivism and descriptivism really are.

Last year, Joan Acocella at the New Yorker ostensibly reviewed a book by Henry Hitchings and used it as an opportunity to trot out that delightful old canard that descriptivists are “anything goes” hypocrites, while prescriptivists are the only ones who care about good writing and proper English. She was subsequently lambasted by just about everyone, which compelled the New Yorker to publish a follow-up article that was not only equally wrongheaded, but was updated with a ludicrous caveat in an attempt to defuse the situation, then un-updated to un-defuse a non-situation.

Here is why we were all in a lather over those articles: “descriptivist” is not a slur, and neither is “prescriptivist” a title of honor (or vice versa). They are merely terms that describe two approaches to analyzing language use. They are not linguistic matter and anti-matter, and when brought together, they will not destroy the universe in a cataclysm of bombast and “ain’t”s.  Good descriptivism involves a measure of prescriptivism, and good prescriptivism involves a measure of descriptivism. What good is a dictionary that enters “irregardless” but neglects to tell you that it’s not accepted as standard English? And how good is a usage and style guide that merely parrots rules with no careful consideration for the historical record of edited prose, or whether this rule does indeed produce clearer, cleaner writing?

In fact, do everyone a favor and just stop talking about “descriptivists vs. prescriptivists.” It’s a false dichotomy that only works if you construct a nonexistent descriptivist straw man as a foil to your upstanding-citizen prescriptivist (or vice versa. Prescriptivists don’t have the corner on language nastiness). For an excellent and well-reasoned take on descriptivism and prescriptivism, go read Jonathon Owen’s essay. I’d also recommend this very interesting discussion between Lane Greene (D) and Bryan Garner (P). If you want to see nerds break chairs over people’s heads, take your bloodlust elsewhere and go heckle a Scrabble tournament (wear a helmet).

Step 2: Learn what dictionaries actually do.

Something that really burns my proverbial biscuits is the musty insistence that dictionaries are the guardians and gatekeepers of the language, and when we enter a word into the Most Sacred Tomes of Webster, we lend it legitimacy. We’re putting our Seal of Approval on its unchecked use, which will eventually kill English.

If you don’t know what dictionaries really do, you can go read this blather, and please consider that people have literally (sense 1) been whining about the demise of English since the 15th century, long before English dictionaries showed up to ruin everything.

Step 3: Educate yourself.

One of the things I find fascinating about some self-proclaimed prescriptivists is that they hold to usage advice that professional prescriptivists have essentially given up on. “Stop using ‘hopefully’ as a sentence adverb! Sentence adverbs are the devil!” some folks say. But Bryan Garner, professional prescriptivist, judges that the sentence adverb “hopefully” is common in use and probably not worth the effort, even if some people still oppose its use.

The problem here is one merely of education, and is easy to remedy: buy some usage dictionaries. At least two, preferably four, written by both descriptivists and prescriptivists. Arrange them near your desk in a way that is aesthetically pleasing. There. Aren’t they nice? They are nice. NOW READ THEM.

Most modern usage dictionaries will give you a little historical overview of a contested use, and then will offer advice on how (or whether) to use it.  You will be surprised to discover that many thinking prescriptivists disagree in their advice, or pass judgment on uses that are so common, no one knows they are not supposed to be using that word that way (e.g., “above” as a noun, as in “all of the above”).  A reasonable prescriptivist critically reads all the evidence and advice they can, and then makes their own judgment.

Step 4: Remember that opinions and facts are two different things.   

My mother, bless her, claims that when I complete a task and holler “I’m done,” I am announcing to the room that I have reached a safe internal minimum temperature and hence will not give you trichinosis. “You’re done, are you? Should I stick a fork in you to make sure?”, she will tut. “You’re finished, not done.”

Alas were it so, but the historical record shows that “done” has been used to mean “completed” or “finished” since the 14th century. The “be done” construction in particular dates back to the 18th century.

Nonetheless, my mother  is of the opinion that this use of “done” is wrong, and she is welcome to that opinion. I am of the opinion that if I say “I’m done” and you really think I’m referring to cooking myself, then you have other issues we need to discuss–and I am entitled to my opinion as well. Both of our positions are equally correct insofar as any preference or opinion is “correct.” A usage preference is not a usage fact, and it should not be held as such. I prefer cake over pie and vanilla over chocolate; but cake is not empirically better than pie, nor is vanilla more correct than chocolate.  Even if science proved that vanilla is more correct, as I am sure it one day will, my preference for vanilla will still be just that: a preference.

Your personal language preference is yours, and it is unassailable. I can hurl citation after citation at it with my standard-issue Lexicographer’s Trebuchet, but a personal decision you make with and keep for yourself is inviolable. “I prefer to use ‘finished’ instead of ‘done'” is a statement that no thinking descriptivist will argue with, because you are not claiming it is a universal fact everyone should subscribe to. But saying “‘I’m done’ is wrong” makes what is an opinion into a fact, and baby, my trebuchet was built for nonsense like that.

Step 5: Realize that you are not the center of the linguistic (or actual) universe.

I have a friend–well, a “friend”–who feels  it is his life’s mission to let me know when I’ve used a word incorrectly. He will stop a conversation dead in its tracks to share with me that I didn’t pronounce “towards” right, or that I should stop saying “howdy” out here on the East Coast because it’s hickish. It’s not just that our conversations are stilted because I can’t finish a sentence without being grammarsplained to; it’s that he makes these judgments based on his own dialectal language patterns. His experience becomes the standard for what is right and proper and good.  In other words, what he speaks is Standard English, and what everyone else speaks is Really Wrong.

In a similar vein, I can’t tell you the number of emails I’ve received over the years that explain that “phat” or \NOO-kyu-lur\  or “irregardless” is wrong and shouldn’t be legitimized in our dictionaries because no one with a modicum of common sense, class, or education would dare use them. I also can’t tell you what my unedited response to this oft-repeated drivel is because I believe it breaks obscenity laws in 33 states.

It’s human nature to make our own experiences and beliefs the standard by which we judge other people and things. But it is, to be blunt, stupid to pretend that English is a monolithic structure that does not have enough room for accent, dialect, or register variations. “Phat” is slang and you shouldn’t use it in formal speech or writing: this is not disputed advice. Are you so presumptuous as to think that a conversation you’re having with the office supplies clerk about “American Idol” is considered formal speech, and therefore the clerk shouldn’t use “phat”? Are you so provincial and backwards that you honestly believe that someone with a southern US accent who may say \NOO-kyu-lur\ instead of \NOO-klee-ur\ is uneducated or stupid? Because y’all, where I come from, we reckon that’s elitist horseshit.

No thinking descriptivist is going to disagree with you when you say that certain words should not be used in certain contexts. But a reasonable prescriptivist understands that different contexts and times often require different types of use, and they tailor their advice to the context and the era.  The best practices of written English have changed dramatically over the last two centuries. Language is flexible; advice regarding its best use should be as well.

Step 6: Lighten up, Francis

Let’s say that you feel, despite the evidence I may put in front of you, that “decimate” should not be used to refer to utterly destroying something. That’s fine, assuming you’ve gone through Steps 1-5 above. But before you move in to correct the next guy who uses “decimate” to mean “to utterly destroy,” consider: is this the hill you want to die on? Do you want your legacy in life to be “That One Person Who Bitched Endlessly About ‘Decimate'”? Are you happy with a life that will be beset by smart-asses like me asking why, if you are so interested in so-called etymological purity, you aren’t also tackling “nice” and “frankfurter” and holy hell half the month names of the Gregorian calendar?

The core question here is an existential, not a grammatical, one: why are you a prescriptivist? Perhaps you’re a professional editor and you need to uphold a style sheet that demands you subscribe to dusty old shibboleths (some of which you may adore). Perhaps you’re a writer and you don’t want to drive your editors crazy. Perhaps you feel that championing best practices makes for better reading and writing. Hell: maybe you just like following rules. Those are fine reasons for being a reasonable prescriptivist. But if you are a prescriptivist because it gives you a sense of superiority and inflated self-worth, a little pillar from which you can spit on the idiot masses below, then you are the sort of prescriptivist that is giving prescriptivism a bad name. Maybe take up yoga?

Don’t get me wrong: descriptivists dislike bad writing, too, but try to put things in perspective. Yes, misused apostrophes irritate me, a descriptivist. Do I feel that people who misuse apostrophes “deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave“? No, of course not: I’m not a sociopath. Do I cringe when people use “impactful”? Oh yeah. If I were editing a piece of writing that used “impactful,” I would very likely revise it out of the text. Does “impactful” make me want to blow up the world? No, not even on a bad day when I have to goddamned write the entry for “impactful.” It is possible to love the sinner yet hate the sin, even if that sin is “impactful.”

The English language is not under attack by barbarians, and you are not her only hope. She’s taken pretty good care of herself, all things considered. Her best practices have always prevailed.  In short: be cordial, humble, and hopeful. It’s so much better than being miserable  and insufferable.


Filed under peeving and usage, the decline of English

Editorial Correspondence: More Answers I Cannot Send

Dear Sir:

Thank you for your comments on the etymology of “Lego.” Sadly, we cannot say whether “Lego” stems from the Latin legere, nor whether, in naming their plastic blocks, the makers of Lego intended to call to mind Augustine of Hippo’s conversion to Christianity, in which he hears a child’s voice calling “tolle, lege.” We are merely dictionary publishers–the very antithesis of beloved toymakers. I would, however, wager that Lego is not intended to call to mind St. Augustine, particularly since Lego is a Danish company, and you no doubt think Europeans are all godless nihilists (though you can’t beat their godless, nihilistic public transportation).


Dear Ma’am:

We are sorry that you are having trouble accessing the Internet, but I doubt it is because our website killed the Internet. The Internet, as you may know, is a series of tubes that are cats all the way down. Cats are remarkably sturdy creatures with nine lives each. Though math is not my strong suit, a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that, assuming each tube is stuffed with a thousand cats and there are a zillion Internet tubes, the Internet will never die. It is more likely that the Internet took offense at your desktop background of a cat hanging from a tree branch by its claws and has banned you. To regain Internet access, please forward this email to your ISP and make a donation to your local SPCA in honor of the tube cats.


Dear Sir:

There are states in the US I’m not particularly fond of either, but that does not mean we will remove their names from the dictionary or, indeed, blot those states out of existence. I am sorry to disappoint.


Dear Madam:

Thanks for your email about “sofa,” “davenport,” “couch,” “loveseat,” and “recliner.” We do not order these words according to the “understood hierarchy” of living-room furniture because we are more den people, if you know what I mean.


Dear Sir:

Your response to Beleaguered Colleague was forwarded to me. I must confess I am quite overwhelmed at the sheer volume and variety of words your response contains. You must imagine that your response (touching on civil rights, the song “Happy Birthday,” the use of language specifically by humans, and legitimate rape) is so impressive that we will immediately acquiesce to your wishes to write a custom dictionary made entirely of your opinions about words. And you are right: we’re giving up lexicography. Merriam-Webster is yours to do with as you please! Thank you for taking over. Please note that my salary, in spite of what the HR records say, is $400,000 a year and I get six months of vacation. Also, who can I complain to about a hostile work environment? My new boss keeps going on and on about “legitimate rape” and it concerns me.


Dear Ma’am:

We are sorry that the state motto of Maryland offends you. We’ll get right on that. What do you think of “Condita est a piratis”?


Dear Sir:

Thank you for writing to ask why “litre” and “fibre” are “misspelt.”  Truly, this is the question of our age. Why is “misspelled” misspelt? Is spelling merely a fascist construct, designed to breed jingoism and linguistic isolationism? Or perhaps it’s a remnant of the bourgeois “education” of the oppressed proletariat classes–after all, only the bourgeois can properly spell “bourgeois.”

I propose this: spell words however you would like to spell them, and when people complain that they are misspelt, engineer a coup and overthrow them.


Dear Ma’am:

Thanks for your comments on the terminal preposition rule. You assert that we cannot know The Truth about it, as we are not John Dryden and cannot possibly know what he was thinking. You are correct: we are absolutely not John Dryden, and are daily grateful for it. You also posit that, if the terminal preposition rule is really a myth, then perhaps English itself is a myth as well. I am afraid you have discovered the truth: English is a myth. We are all actually Germans trying our best to speak Latin. I believe the Internet will confirm this.


Dear Sir:

This may be hard to believe, but the adjective “wily” predates Wile E. Coyote by about 600 years. In related news, roadrunners don’t actually say “meep meep,” and if you fall off a cliff and are crushed by a safe, you get more than a comically tall lump on your head. I hope this information is helpful.


Dear Ma’am:

Thanks for writing and sharing with us what made you want to look up the word “tongue.” I really didn’t need (or want) to know all that, though. I hardly know you.


Dear Sir:

I’m sorry that our correspondence has been so unsatisfying to you. It has personally been the highlight of my lexicographical career. I’m so distraught over the idea that we will no longer be corresponding that I may well quit lexicography altogether and go back to my original plan to be a doctor. Perhaps the rigors of med school will distract me from my broken heart.

I will fondly remember our first correspondence, in which you called me “a machine-generated response.” It cut to the heart of me–I was losing touch with my humanity, it was true. How well you knew me, even from the outset! I resolved to spend more time outside and away from my computer. Your follow-ups were just as personal, just as convicting. “Yes,” I cried upon reading your next, “I am lazy and shiftless!” “Absolutely!” I agreed, “I am an idiot! Thank god someone has finally seen through me!” The truth will set you free, they say, and your emails threw off my chains and let me soar wobblingly (and no doubt with terrible form) into the sun.

I will miss your unfounded indignation, your terrible spelling, and your superior knowledge of everything. I would say I don’t know how I’ll get along without you, but you’ve anticipated me even there: a quick glance at my inbox shows that you’ve sent some of your protégés to keep me company. Bless you, Sir.


Filed under correspondence, the decline of English

The Times, They Are A-Changing (And So Should Your Dictionary)

I was on an airplane heading to Georgia for a conference when I got into my usual “take my mind off the possibility this plane will suddenly plummet from the sky” conversation with my seatmate. Talk turned to dictionaries, and my seatmate began heaping praise on her old one. She had, she told me proudly, a Webster’s Second, and there was no way in heaven or on earth she was going to give it up for one of those silly modern dictionaries. “My son keeps trying to get me to use a dictionary on my phone, but I tell him, ‘Those new dictionaries aren’t the same quality as the one I have at home.'”

I opened my mouth to say that, nice though the definitions in the Second are, they are almost 80 years out of date, when the supercell we were flying past let out a little meteorological burp and the plane flew right through it. I am not entirely sure, but I believe we may have flipped over several times, and I am certain that the sound that came out of my mouth was not a spirited defense of the modern dictionary (though it was certainly “spirited” in the “possessed by banshees” sense). Our bounce through North Carolina airspace lasted only ten seconds, and afterwards my seatmate excused herself to the lavatory, so our conversation was over.

Had the conversation continued, I would have said this: old dictionaries are nostalgia bombs in more ways than one. The heft of the Second and the Third are glorious: tooled leather and gold-leaf embossing, that powdery vanilla smell of old paper as you smooth the pages back. Then you see this:

doo dee doo dee doo WHAT

“Negrito,” Webster’s Second

Consulting old dictionary definitions is like having dinner with your grandparents. The evening usually starts off well enough, with your grandparents telling stories of their life during the war or down on the farm, and then there is that one point where your dear old granny says something that is slightly outré and you know that the whole conversation is slowly going off the rails, but before you can think of some tactful way to change the subject, your dear grandma is using words like “Japs” and “Eye-ties” and “the blacks,” words that make you inadvertently screech your fork across your plate. And when you look for some sign of self-consciousness–some sign that she should know better, Grandma–all you see is the same little old lady who was there before the vileness came tumbling out of her mouth, slowly daubing her meatloaf with mashed potato.

I have been reminded of the chronological fixedness of old dictionaries as we have begun working on the Unabridged Dictionary. It’s no secret that most dictionaries in print today are written using another dictionary as the base; the Unabridged is being built on the very doughty scaffolding of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. We review the entries in the Third, add (many, many) new entries, and flesh out or correct entries that need it, and in no time at all, idiomatically speaking, the dictionary we’re working on is no longer the Third but a new critter entirely. But this transformational work is not as easy as you’d think, because the Third is 50 years old, and some of the language used and the implicit attitudes expressed therein are like those dinners with Grandma after she’s polished off her second martini. It’s not that the definers of the Third were trying to be offensive, it’s just that society and our cultural ethos have changed a little since 1961. When the Third was released, there was no Equal Pay Act or fully ratified Fourteenth Amendment or Roe v. Wade; sodomy was a felony in every state in the U.S.; and one of the top pop hits was “Runaround Sue,” a song that we today would call “slut-shaming.” Considering the time, it’s frankly amazing that the Third is as careful and circumspect as it is.

For dictionaries that are updated more frequently–even dictionaries updated every 10 years–this de-Archie-Bunkering happens naturally. You notice, for instance, that there’s mention of women in the citations for “firefighter” or “CEO,” and all you do is make sure that you edit out the masculine pronoun in the definition. Or let’s say that you undertake a revision and discover that what was formerly called “Black English” is now called “African-American Vernacular English.” Fine: you search the data for any label that reads “Black English” and make the change. In this way, the dictionary is updated for modern mores in manageable nibbles. But the fact is that you are catching things as you encounter them, rather than hunting for them. For the Unabridged, we’d have to grab our pitchforks and head into the forest looking for the monsters.

It all begins with lists (if there is one thing we are good at, it is making depressing lists). We compiled lists of every word in the Third, the latest Collegiate, and the Learner’s Dictionary that was given any sort of stigmatizing label, regardless of whether that label was current (dated, old-fashioned, vulgar, obscene) or not (abuse, contempt). Then we began to think of words we had encountered in our many jaunts through the Third that struck us as culturally sensitive or potentially offensive: “Negro,” for instance, or “colored.” This list grew as each of us began thinking about awkward family dinners with That One Uncle who likes to talk loudly with his mouth full and eventually lapses into saying horrible things that make our eyes widen and our mothers tsk in disapproval. As we each delved into the archives of our mythic That One Uncle, we together sang the body apoplectic: “Do we have ‘Asiatic’ on the list?” “Do we have ‘homosexual’ on the list?” “Please tell me that ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ are on the list.” “Oh good Lord, we absolutely need to put ‘redskin’ on the list.” And because everything’s better in threes, we had a third list of words that might be potentially sexist: any word with a masculine pronoun in the definition; any word with a gender-specific term (“woman,” “girl,” “mistress,” “man,” “boy”) in the definition; words ending in the suffix “-ette” or “-ess”; any word with the affix “-man.” Compiling these lists was deeply exhausting work, mostly because we’d swing between being riled up about and deeply embarrassed by the imaginary collective -isms of That One Uncle. 

Eventually, we had our list of words. But we weren’t ready to revise yet, because first, we had to search through every entry in the Third that contained any member of those lists. If “man” or “boy” appeared in a definition, a usage note, an example sentence or verbal illustration, an etymology, or even a subject label, the word where it appeared was put on the Potentially Offensive List. When all was said and done, we had thousands and thousands of entries to go through.

This is the point at which my dear friends who are computational linguists want to hear about the programmatic handling of these entries, but the truth is that everything had to be done by hand. Despite Philip Gove’s zeal for order and systematic defining, none of these terms had parallel handling in the Third, so it wasn’t as simple as swapping out “Negro” with “African-American,” for instance. Some of these terms were also a little too nuanced for a simple search-and-replace. The word “primitive” as it is applied to people groups is culturally outdated, but that doesn’t mean that every instance of the word “primitive” in the Third needs to be swapped out with…what, exactly? Is there a single synonymous word for this particular sense of “primitive” that would fit every stigmatized use of it in the Third? How would we know without having a real, live, myopic and undercaffeinated editor look at ever stigmatized use of “primitive” first? Our stalwart and defiantly cheerful Cross-Reference department began sorting through 50 years of fodder for awkward family dinners, and then an equally cheerful group of editors (and me) began to update these entries.

There is something utterly dispiriting about encountering that volume of offensiveness, but it can also motivate you. I am making this goddamned better, you think, because no one else should have to deal with That One Uncle in this dictionary, and you swallow the bile and bite back the “WTF!”s and keep editing “Negro” out of entries.

But as you may guess, offensiveness isn’t always so easily predictable. Take, for instance, the entry in the Third for “atheistic,” which I had in one of my early defining batches. The definition reads, in full, “relating to, characterized by, or given to atheism : GODLESS, IMPIOUS, IRREVERENT.”

“Oh my God,” I muttered, then paused briefly to regret my word choice. To a lexicographer, that boldface colon between “atheism” and “godless” is not just a cute way of breaking up space, but a way to signal that the things on either side of that colon are exactly synonymous. That means that if someone is describing another person as “atheistic,” according to that definition, they mean both that that person subscribes to atheism and that they are impious, irreverent, and godless. I believe that this definition wasn’t a malicious attack on atheists–it was just sloppy defining. These are two separate meanings and shouldn’t have been shoved together into one. But that boldface colon in the middle of the entry makes what could have been a perfectly neutral definition into a moral judgment on atheists.

There were occasional reprieves: sometimes the issues we uncovered weren’t completely depressing. While looking through the entry for “runner,” I ran across the definition “a seaman engaged for a short single voyage” and howled like a 12-year-old boy. “Seaman” went on the Potentially Offensive List; that sense of “runner” has yet to be fixed.

And there’s the rub (hur hur hur): the Unabridged is a work in progress. We’ve already changed thousands of entries, but there are, as our Director of Defining has put it, “no doubt many more excitingly offensive things to be discovered.”

Lexicographers like to remind people often and loudly that a dictionary is a record of the English language as it is used–and it is, fully and totally, from its entry list to the language used in the definitions. That’s why I cringe when people tell me they prefer to cite Webster’s 1828 or Webster’s Second when discussing what words mean today. Both those dictionaries are perfectly serviceable and scholarly dictionaries of their day, but the sun set on that day a long time ago. By all means, love your old dictionaries–cherish them for the works of art that they are, keep them around to remind you of days gone by–but maybe don’t look up “Negrito” in them.


Filed under lexicography, making word sausage