Dear Merriam-Webster

One morning around break time, one of my colleagues passed my cubicle and noticed the look of utter defeat on my face. While this is my default look after 3:00pm, it was still early. He approached with caution. “So,” he murmured, “what’s on the docket for today?”

“Well, first, about five  new words, then a bunch of typos. Then the job requests. Then I think I’ll finish up by ruining young minds and destroying Western civilization. Again.”

He peered at my computer screen. “Haven’t you ruined all the young minds already? Oh, well. Carry on, I guess?” And he sauntered back to his cubicle, happy in the knowledge that he did not have to answer the editorial correspondence that day.

For as long as there have been editors making citations, writing definitions, and silently despairing over the quality of the coffee in the office, there has been editorial correspondence. The Merriam brothers welcomed it; by the 1860s, they were running advertisements promising a free dictionary to anyone who wrote in with evidence of a word that was not in Webster’s. Hundreds of letters poured in. Times have changed–we don’t give free dictionaries to correspondents, so don’t even ask–but the editorial correspondence is forever. The notion is a simple one: if you have a question about the English language, you can send it in (on paper or through the magical Internet) and an editor will answer it for you.

The first hitch in this grand plan is what exactly is meant by “the English language.” To me–and perhaps this is narrow-minded of me, since my modus operandi is to, you know, focus on the meanings of words and all–the phrase “the English language” refers to a word, speech pattern, usage, und so weiter that appears in the language commonly called “English.” I have discovered, however, that this is crazy talk. “The English language” means anything that can be written using words that appear in the English language (though those words need not exhibit the grammar, syntax, or spelling we associate with standard English). In my many years answering the correspondence, I’ve been asked what to look for in purchasing an Alaskan Malamute, why manhole covers are round, how much wood a woodchuck can actually and literally chuck, if rain on your wedding day is really ironic if you live in Seattle, and whether I can make a rainbow–and that’s just a sample. (Answers: good blood lines, ease of replacement, 2 cords of wood per day, no, and of course I can.)

The second hitch in this grand plan lies in our response: “an editor will answer it for you.” That’s what’s called a “simple declarative statement” or, if you study it longer,  “idealistic and naive in ways not seen since Eden.”  We really do try to answer all intelligible questions we receive. We may not answer them to everyone’s satisfaction, but we answer them. Whether we should is another question.

There are three types of e-mails that we commonly get: Enter My Word Into Your Dictionary; Your Dictionary Sucks; and Hire Me, I’m Amazing. Sometimes people economize and use all three types in one e-mail. (“Hi, I noticed you don’t have my coinage ‘flabulous,’ which means ‘tremendously fat,’ in your dictionary. While looking for my word, I also found a typo in an entry. Your dictionary sucks! Do you need a proofreader? You had better hire me. Here’s my resume. I look forward to being your boss.”)

Enter My Word Into Your Dictionary is fairly self-explanatory. These people get my thanks for their intrepid new coinage and an explanation of how a word makes it into the dictionary. If they write back and say, “Yeah, wevs, are you going to enter it or not??” then I usually respond with a little terse note asking them to read the delightful essay we’ve written on this very goddamned subject. Some people persist and think that simply by pointing out the empirical awesomeness of their word, I will come to my senses, delete all the other words in the dictionary, and just print their coinage over and over again as a paean to its sublimity. Haha! Silly correspondent! I am a lexicographer and therefore do not have any grasp on what is awesome, empirically or otherwise.

Your Dictionary Sucks has the most variety and encompasses everything from very polite and apologetic typo reports to flat-out abuse of our products, our persons, and our hygiene.  But all of them are marked by one underlying attitude: I can’t believe this is wrong because you are the dictionary!

It always comes as a shock to our correspondents that the dictionary is not a book most holy and inviolate, delivered unto us from On High, verily divine. It is  written by real, live, completely fallible human beings. These human beings have been known, while proofreading 2,000 pages of 4-point type, to miss a thing or two. There is no need to panic: the English language is not falling all to hell simply because I yawned at 6:00pm two days before the manuscript had to be at the typesetter’s and therefore missed “falllible.”

For those clamoring for computers to take lexicography over, please know that I spent a solid week many years ago hunting down all the programmatic misexpansions of “G” into “German” in the etymologies of the online dictionary (“Germanlobal Positioning System” was my favorite).

There’s a particularly draining variant of Your Dictionary Sucks that appears with regularity: Your Dictionary Is Ruining Young Minds. This is the catty, litigious aunt of Your Dictionary Sucks. It’s generally better spoken than Your Dictionary Sucks, knows more lawyers than Your Dictionary Sucks, and does not care at all what you have to say in your defense because it knows what is best.

Now, I have no problem with people thinking that the dictionary is ruining young minds (as I have so ably demonstrated previously). But at the root of these e-mails is a basic philosophical misunderstanding.

You see, lexicographers are interested in what is generally called “lexical defining.” That is, we aim to figure out and communicate how a word is used and what it means in a particular context. However, many people assume that the dictionary does “real defining”: the attempt to describe, to the best of one’s ability, the essential nature or identity of the person, thing, or idea behind the word. Real defining asks, “What is truth?” or “What is beauty?” Lexical defining asks, “How is the word ‘truth’ used in this particular context?” or “What does ‘beauty’ mean when it’s used this way?”

Some think this is ludicrous hair-splitting or blame-shifting. It’s not. This distinction has very practical applications for the definer. Let me give you an example.

Every year on one mid-May Monday, I open my e-mail program and see a number of angry e-mails that read like this:

“My Sunday school class was working on a Mother’s Day present, and we decided to look up ‘mother’ in your dictionary to find words we could use to describe how wonderful mothers are. You can imagine how shocked/upset/horrified I was to see such terrible language in the dictionary! This is a TERRIBLE way to define a mother! Mothers are kind and generous and loving, and THAT SORT OF LANGUAGE IS RUINING YOUNG MINDS.”

The correspondent has confused real defining (what mothers are) with lexical defining (how the word “mother” is used). The word “mother” is, in some contexts, used to mean “motherfucker,” as anyone over the age of 9 who has ever watched television will (gigglingly) tell you. What we are not saying is that mothers are mofos, though I’m sure some of them are.

Few correspondents, when worked up to that level of indignation, will blithely accept the “real defining vs. lexical defining” response I send them. So they write back and tell me that, unless I remove this egregious entry from the dictionary and replace it with something that would not make my mother ashamed of me, they will boycott us.

I know better than anyone that the dictionary includes words in it that describe horrible, despicable things. After all, I get to read the citational evidence for those words and write definitions for them.  But removing an offending word from the dictionary will not make the thing that word describes disappear. If it were that easy, don’t you think we’d already have done it?

Additionally, I learned that sort of language from my mother.

There is something that is a little unsettling about the correspondence. Despite the fact that I am an unabashed language ho, I have never, ever, thought, “Hmm, why do we park on the driveway and drive on the parkway? I think I’ll hunt down the address for the dictionary and ask them!” Nor have I ever thought, “You know, English is terribly sexist! I think I’ll tell the dictionary to fix that!” And I’ve certainly never thought, “The lawyer said that what I did constitutes felony assault, but he’s just a guy with a $100 haircut and a law degree. What does he know? I think I’ll ask the dictionary to tell me if what I did was really a felony or not!” But there are lots of people in the world who think that this is just fine. I don’t get it–and I am, let us remember, not exactly what you’d call “well-adjusted.”

Correspondence is one of those “other duties as assigned” that no lexicographer thinks too much of until they are drafted into it. It doesn’t take many letters to learn that people don’t have a very good grasp on what the dictionary can and can’t do. You learn right away that people are passionate about language. How can a person not be? It’s the primary mode of communication in our world, the thing underpinning society itself, the means by which we express our very souls, and here is some dictionary totally fucking it up.

If you step back from the inbox full of screeching and look at the correspondence that way, it’s almost hopeful. It means that people are thinking about language, which is ultimately what we want people to do. That thought is almost enough to warm the lump of bituminous coal where my heart used to be.

Correctly spelling your angry screed and refraining from calling me “Satan’s housemaid” helps, too.

37 Comments

Filed under correspondence, general

37 responses to “Dear Merriam-Webster

  1. I know that at my age, I’m supposed to be a stick in the mud, but I find this usage of “wevs” new and charming.

  2. Garrett Wollman

    You should see the correspondence university physics departments get!

  3. johnwcowan

    I do too, and I use it, though I have yet to use it viva voce, only in email and blog comments.

    I have sent YDS emails to the OED for years (only of the very polite variety, and always with very polite replies), but I don’t think I ever believed they were infallible either because they were the Big Dictionary or for any other reason. (I do continue to believe that whoever read The Water Babies for them was doing it in his sleep, though he’s probably been dead for a century.)

  4. Additionally, I learned that sort of language from my mother.

    This.

  5. Kory, I can’t even begin to describe how much I love harmless drudgery (er, the blog.)

    Just wanted you to know how awesome you are.

  6. This made me chuckle and snort on my bus commute this morning. Indeed I enjoyed it so much that I don’t care how much I must have seemed the crazy lady. And I’ve shared your post with my fellow proofreaders.Thank you!

  7. Marc Leavitt

    Kory:
    Just remember that you aren’t Sisyphus, even though you feel that way sometimes. Many are called, but chew are frozen.

  8. It almost seems like (loose meaning) irony that in this post you talk about people sending in corrections; link to your previous post on obscene language that includes how “obscene” vs. “vulgar” labeling is tricky; link to the “Mother (4)” MW dictionary entry, which is labeled “sometimes vulgar” while the full form is “usually obscene”; and allude to the Alanis Morissette “Irony” song / meaning-of-“irony” controversy discussed in your recent “Ask the Editor” video. Or is it just this comment that Schrödinger’s-cats (it’s a verb now!) the whole thing from infinite quantum-state possibilities?

    Anyway, I very much enjoy your blog, Kory. I’m glad you do what you do with stacks of little pieces of paper, but I’m also glad you’re now taking the time to let us enjoy your lively writing manumitted from the trammels of 140-character limits.

    • korystamper

      Sorry I’m late in replying, but a wormhole opened up in my office and I couldn’t figure out why. All these parallel yet interlinked universes! It was like cleaning up truckload of tangled Slinkies(TM).

      Honestly, all the links hadn’t even occurred to me. I’ll let a psychologist chime in on my mental state as is evidenced by so much repeated profanity/irony.

  9. Matthew Hill

    Okay, ever since the F-bomb post I’ve been looking in vain for the promised profanity! But I am from New Jersey, so the threshold is set pretty high :)

    But in seriousness this reminds me that the phrase “drank the cool aid” always does disturb me a bit. With the senseless, painful death associated with the Jim Jones massacre it’s surprising and interesting that the phrase is now frequently used in a lighthearted way. But I can’t think off the cuff of language generated by other recent horrific events that has now been all but cleansed of it’s disturbing origins. Probably there are lots of examples, but this is the one I notice.

    Which brings up my final comment. I know there are multi-word entries in your dictionary. But where is the line drawn between such an entry and an actual phrase? Also since you folks watch language so carefully I would think that tracking those phrases would be of interest to you, yet presumably outside the scope of your profession. Is that sort of thing left to linguists to study or do you also keep an eye or two open for developing phrases?

    Great fucking blog! (That’s New Jersey speak for “good show old chap.”)

    • korystamper

      Meaning shift from severe to less severe is pretty common, actually: “decimate,” “keelhaul,” and “obliterate” have meanings that move from more severe to less as time goes on. “Drink the Kool-Aid” is another example.

      As for multi-word…words, we track any unit of language which has a distinct meaning in addition to the collocations around those units. This means we pay attention to single words, idioms (“up a storm,” as in “cussing up a storm”), common phrases (like “drink the Kool-Aid”), phrasal verbs, and so on. Those get handled differently depending on the dictionary, but we do track them.

  10. So very brilliant. Good bit of humor. Thanks for sharing, Kory!

  11. Personally I think ‘Lexigography can be Fun!’ would be a most suitable sub-title for your blog. This really did make me chuckle whilst informing me of things interesting amd previously unknown.

    Could you send a rainbow to Sydney, please? Do you do the pot of gold thing, too?

  12. Dave G

    Actually, manhole covers are round so they don’t fall into the holes they cover (they sit on a rim that’s slightly smaller in diameter). A square manhole cover, for instance, can drop through on the diagonal.

    • korystamper

      I had always heard “ease of replacement,” but I’ll take your word for it as the design of manhole covers is “well outside our area of expertise,” as we say in the correspondence.

      • Matthew Hill

        I alway like to imagine the first time people realized such things. I picture an irate, injured sewer-man, a sheepish fellow on the surface, and the cover designer slapping his forehead. It’s similar to the peculiar warnings one sees in product user manuals. When “do not use this weed wacker to trim body hair” is written in the safety pages I’m willing to bet there is an uncomfortable circumstance that lead to its inclusion. Or the lawyers have a sense of humor.

      • Hank G.

        The fact that round manhole covers cannot fall in would aid in “ease of replacement”, assuming that by “ease of replacement” you mean putting the cover back in place. One could well imagine that you would have to take much more care in replacing a square manhole cover that could fall into the manhole.

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  14. Charming Charlie

    Comedy gold.

    I’m surprised by the absence of the words “proscriptive” and “descriptive” in this post. I happen to know that American Heritage Dictionary takes a proscriptive approach to defining, or at least that’s what I remember from Emily Brewster’s talk here.

    • korystamper

      Ah, the prescriptive/descriptive debate. Truth be told, all lexicographers are both prescriptive and descriptive in varying amounts. MW tends to be more descriptive, AH tends to be more prescriptive. Neither approach is “right” or “wrong,” just different. And maybe I’ll do a post on walking that line that at some point.

      In the meantime, though, Jonathon Owen of Arrant Pedantry has a fabulous post on descriptivism and prescriptivism here (assuming my tags work) that echoes some of my own personal thoughts on the prescriptivism/descriptivism divide.

      Standard disclaimers apply: these thoughts–and everything else on this blog–are my own and do not necessarily represent the views yadda yadda yadda.

  15. Matthew Hill

    Okay, do most people really pronounce “drudgery” with two syllables, as indicated in the m-w dictionary and the name of your blog? I’m sure that is the best understanding or you wouldn’t have the entry listed 2-syllable first and 3-syllabol second. But, when I click the pronunciation link (on the m-w site) the voice pronounces it with three syllables. I must understand this apparent quasi-contradiction! :) Thanks.

    • korystamper

      Oh, common confusion. The dots in dictionary headwords (well, in MW headwords, anyway) represent end-of-line breaking points–that is, places where writers can choose to hyphenate the word if it doesn’t fit on one line. End-of-line divisions don’t always match up with syllabification, which is indicated within the pronunciation itself by hyphens.

      That said, some people do evidently pronounce “drudgery” with two syllables: we list \ˈdrəj-rē, ˈdrə-jə-rē\ in the online dictionary. I’m definitely in the three-syllable camp, though.

  16. Matthew Hill

    I feel so ˈkä-mən. But happy to learn…thanks!

  17. Bendrix

    Interesting. Why do the rules for syllabification and end-of-line breaking points differ? I thought the two were related. Do the rules for breaking points have more to do with typography and readability of the text on the page?

    • korystamper

      Well, pronunciation does play a part in determining end-of-line breaks, but so does morphology. And I’m sure that readability plays a part as well.

  18. I was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary for 17 years. Oh how I know what you’re talking about. Your post gave me a good laugh. Writing to the people I referred to as “crackpots” (in my kinder moments) is one thing I do not miss about lexicography. They didn’t really want a dispassionate discussion of why we did the things we did; they just wanted me to agree with them, and of course I never could. We even had a little game amongst the lexicographers when a suspect envelope arrived in the mail. We called it “spot the crackpot”, and it consisted of trying to guess, based on the handwriting on the envelope, whether it was adoring fan mail (ha!) and if not, what the complaint of the day was going to be.

    • korystamper

      Wow, you guys got fan mail?? Oh, Canada.

      I’ve mentioned it on Twitter, but I have to share it here again: the best/weirdest letter we’ve ever received in the office reads, in its entirety, “Dear Merriam-Webster: How long does love last? Sincerely, [redacted].”

  19. I find it a source of joy just knowing that there are these lexicographical superheroes like yourself who actually take time to answer the editorial correspondence each day. Such patience and selfless service is inspiring. I think many companies could learn from the example of how you gracefully handle correspondence.

    I myself have never asked an editor a question before, perhaps in part because I lack the apparent insanity of many letter writers, but I am curious about about how the correspondence is managed. How many letters do you get per year? How much is paper vs. e-mail these days? How does one submit a question via e-mail to the M-W editors anyway? (The web site wisely does not list an address for them in any obvious place.) Surely you have some stock replies to save time, but how much effort is all this? How do you choose what questions to feature in the “Ask the Editor” video series?

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