The Art of Conversation and Falling in Love: A Lexicographer’s Journey into Talking

The stool was a bit too high, the headphones were a bit too big, and the volume was a bit too loud. The host turned to me and said, “Okay, on in 30. We’ll have about three minutes. Are you ready?”

“You bet.”

“Just be yourself, this’ll be great.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, mentally reviewing some of the noteworthy words we had just entered into that year’s update of the Collegiate Dictionary– “SARS,” “convergence,” “gastric bypass,” “blog,” “pop-up,” “psyops.”

When the radio station came back from commercial, the host turned to his mic, introduced me as an editor from Merriam-Webster, and began our conversation on important new words with, “I’m looking at your list of new entries for this edition, and the one that really caught my eye was ‘bikini wax’!”

The co-hostess piped up. “Did you have to do field research on this? I mean, did you all go out and get bikini waxes?!”

“Now THAT is job dedication!” the host hee-hawed.

In the microsecond before my brain cobbled together a vaguely coherent reply and sent it down the answer-chute, where it would fall out of my already-open mouth, I thought, “No wonder no one else volunteers to talk to the public.”

Language is a marker of our culture, our thoughts, our predilections. Its use is highlighted in articles and interviews, and sometimes quoting a dictionary isn’t enough: sometimes you want to talk to the people behind the dictionary, the ones who can shed light on language trends. This–conversation on a topic of shared interest–is a natural, human exchange. Therefore, it is scary as hell to the Merriam-Webster lexicographer.

It’s not that we’re patently afraid of personal interaction; it’s just that we’ve forgotten how to do it–an occupational hazard that comes with all that solitude and deep concentration. You sit in your cubicle reading the citations for “run” for days, weeks, epochs, and when you finally push back from your desk for a good stretch, you find that your vocal cords have atrophied and trilobites rule the earth (again).

Even if you escape the Big 8, there comes a point in your career when you realize that the idea of lexicography is infinitely sexier than the reality of lexicography. This happens at different times for each of us. Maybe it’s the 8,000th time you have to answer the question “So, how does a word get into a dictionary?” Perhaps it comes when you get home from work and even your dog looks at you with eyes that plead, “Please do not tell me about your day.” Or maybe it happens while you are trying to impress someone into sleeping with you, and the only way you can think to woo them back to your place is to talk about your sexy, sexy job–which is not sexy at all, as will be revealed (along with your pallor and flab) in the milky light of morning over an awkward coffee. It’s wonder-fatigue. My boss sums it up thus: “I’ve done this long enough that I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

In short, the people you think are the absolute best people in the world to discuss words and lexicography with are the ones who are least enthusiastic about doing so.

When I came to Merriam-Webster, I was enchanted with everything, up to and including the silence. I had just left a job that featured non-stop phone calls from angry people and an office environment that reeked of the bone-shaking, helpless terror you feel when riding a poorly maintained wooden roller-coaster operated by a teenager on meth. Upon realizing my new cubicle at M-W didn’t even have a phone jack, I almost wept for joy. The quiet subhum of pencils and erasers on paper, the soft click of keyboards, the shushing stride of the editorial secretary as she walked the floor, and the quiet, the eggshell-colored, cocooning quiet of it all! It was heaven. I got right down to not talking to anyone ever, ever again.

There were warning signs of what this would lead to–signs I blithely ignored. One colleague thought a good way to start a conversation was to point to a picture from the 1950s that hung in our office and say, “He used to be an editor here, and then one day, he went home and shot himself!” Another dropped off a card at my desk. A coworker had had a baby, and I needed to find another way to say “Congratulations!” that hadn’t already been said. The deliverer intoned, “You need to find something to say, because we can’t send this card half-empty. I, frankly, was at a loss. The baby was born neither on Patriot’s Day nor on the observance of Patriot’s Day, so really, there is nothing you can say.” He nodded, returned to his desk, and didn’t speak to me again for seven months.

Years passed. I had limited interaction with the public through the editorial correspondence, but generally remained in my little box, staring at citations and weighing my use of “directional” in this particular definition, slowly losing bits of my humanity. When someone would stop by my desk, I’d startle and freeze like a mouse watching the owl soar in, fascinated by its pinions. My conversations grew stilted; they now mostly involved me staring at my fellow conversationalists like they were speaking Esperanto backwards. During a dinner out with friends, one of them commented that I was pretty quiet, and the only thing that popped to mind as a response was, “Did you know there was once this editor at our company who went home and shot himself?” Instead of blurting it out, I excused myself to the cool, gurgling dank of the ladies’ room. Oh God, I thought, when will the trilobites come and end this?

Meanwhile, in the office, I retreated so far into my blanket-fort of words that I began to feel stifled. My 8,000th “ZOMG enter my new word!!!” e-mail came in and I couldn’t even be bothered to “meh” about it. Instead of flipping through a new batch with a salacious sort of eagerness, I glanced at the first few words and wrote it off. “You again,” I muttered to “blue-plate special.” “Whoop. Ee.” The list of potential words I had lined up for future Word History of the Day features read like the index of the DSM-IV: “ennui,” “malaise,” “weltschmerz.”

Wonder-fatigue. I was falling out of love with lexicography. I had to take a class to learn how to love it again.

A friend of mine asked me to come in to his high-school English class to talk about lexicography, and I (dutifully, awkwardly) said yes. There is nothing like standing in front of a few dozen tan, polished teenagers while wearing ill-fitting clothes and talking about Samuel Johnson to make you wonder if you should have just called in sick with smallpox. I went through my (boring, dead) presentation on how a word got into the dictionary, then asked for questions.

One hand shot up in the back of the room. “So, there’s ‘cactus’ and ‘cacti,’ right? Why isn’t it ‘penis’ and ‘peni’?”

Shocked snorting and giggling filled the room. This was not going according to plan. The teacher was about to tell this kid to head to the office when I said, “No, fair question. That’s a fair question.”

All eyes were on me. The air was thick with expectation. An adult was going to say the word “penis” repeatedly in class.

“Basically,” I began, “there was a movement in the 17th and 18th centuries to make English more like Latin, because a group of grammarians thought Latin was this beautiful ideal of a language and English was a mess. So they began imposing Latin rules on English. One of the things they did was correct the plurals of words that end in ‘-us,’ because those words were from Latin and needed a Latin plural. ‘Cactus’ got a Latinate plural because it ended in ‘-us,’ but ‘penis’ obviously doesn’t end in ‘-us,’ so no overcorrection was made.”

Titters. She said “penis”!

The teacher put in. “These changes were made to help correct mistakes that were made earlier.” And as he nodded in satisfaction, something odd happened: I got strangely, irrationally angry.

“No,” I said firmly, “these changes didn’t correct anything! They changed things that were not wrong. See, ‘cactuses’ is fine because it follows the rule for how to pluralize a noun ending in -s.” While my friend tried to find a way to spin this–ignore the grammarian behind the curtain, kids!–I went on. “They all loved Latin because it was tidy and lovely, but they ended up missing the loveliness of English.” The kids shifted uneasily. “Don’t you think English is lovely?”

Desks squeaked, shoes rubbed on linoleum, pencils tapped. This is why I should not be allowed out to talk to the people, I thought. Then I had a deeply harebrained idea. “What are you guys reading in class?” I asked my friend.

“Macbeth.”

“Right,” I announced to the bored masses, “I will give ten dollars to the first student who stands up and gives me a good reading of the ‘tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow’ speech.”

The electric potential of capitalism stole over the room. They all grabbed their Shakespeares and began flipping. I upped the ante. “Twenty if you can do it from memory.”

Gasps. First she said “penis” and now she’s offering us money! My friend leaned in and muttered, “I am never asking you back.”

“Yeah,” I murmured, “that’s probably wise.”

One of the kids began. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow–“

“No, there’s rhythm here. Look over the speech–all the way until the messenger enters–and do it again.”

He did, then started in a monotone so flat it made pancakes jealous. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day / To the last syllable of recorded time; / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death.” He paused for a big breath and I jumped in. “Do you hear it? ‘Day to day,’ ‘yesterdays,’ ‘way to dusty death’?” He stared hard at the page.

“Okay, twenty dollars for you to rap it.”

“What?”

“Can you rap? Rap it.”

The class murmured excitedly. This woman was totally off her nut. The shit-stirrer had managed to find the speech and stood. “Yo, yo, boyyyyyz–“

My mom-brain took over, and without thinking, I blurted out, “Nope, I’m not going to pay you to be an ass. Do it right.”

Chastened, he began again, haltingly. And within two lines, he got it–he hit the rhythm, felt the sonorities line up. He made Macbeth’s despair into a tight wad of anger. When he finished, someone hooted.

“Isn’t that powerful?” I gushed. “Do you think that needs fixing? Because one of the chief grammarians of the 17th century would have gone back and red-penned that to death if he had had a chance. All because Shakespeare’s poetry didn’t match what he thought was a better, higher form of poetry.” I paused, trying to bring this all back to how a word gets into the dictionary, but then gave up. “I’m just saying that English may be a mess, but it’s a lovely, powerful mess.”

On my drive back to the office, I was squirmy. There was an odd feeling in my chest, like I had swallowed a cup of warm tea, but instead of feeling sleepy and soothed (because this is what tea does to me), I was jumpy. When I sat in my cubicle, I was excited and breathless, and then it hit me: infatuation. I spent so much time dissecting words in silence that they had lost their proper context. It took talking to other people about this crazy, messy language to redevelop my crush on it.

Suddenly, lexicography was interesting again because it was no longer the end, but a means. The dictionary communicates meaning of words, but it takes talking to people to communicate the story of the language that’s made up of those words. Give me silence when I’m defining, but give me conversation to keep me falling in love.

Of course, just like English, people are unpredictable. My first radio interview, ostensibly about Serious Words like “SARS” and “psyops” began with a disquisition on “bikini wax.” Messy in more ways than one, but it’s all a part of making people fall in love with English.

I had learned a few things, though, in how to keep on topic by that point. By the time the host had stopped chortling over his “job dedication” crack, I had recovered enough to say, “Well, you know, the mark of a good interviewer is that he’s done his homework, so tell me: did your Brazilian hurt?” The co-hostess shrieked in laughter. The host blanched, then grinned, then moved right on to “SARS.”

22 Comments

Filed under general, lexicography

22 responses to “The Art of Conversation and Falling in Love: A Lexicographer’s Journey into Talking

  1. ‘English may be a mess, but it’s a lovely, powerful mess.’

    This is a fine way to put it. And I think you handled those teenagers really well, encouraging them to forget the inevitable wisecracks for a moment and think about what matters, what language can be and what they could be.

  2. Good on ya for taking back control. Being interviewed isn’t talking to people (with honorable exceptions for interviewers like Bill Moyers): it’s being mocked by someone whose business plan consists of finding as many dorks as he can and making them objects of ridicule for an audience that would probably have laughed hysterically while watching the Crucifixion.

    The English class, now that was talking to people.

    • korystamper

      Truly, trade shows, conferences, and school visits are my favorites because they allow for some spontaneity in discussion. I come off as an overeager dork 80% of the time, but why try to escape your destiny?

      Interviews can be good, but if the host starts off with something smart-assed, he or she should not be shocked when I respond in kind.

  3. I’ve felt that same feeling of falling out of love in my job as an editor. At times it’s a very tedious and thankless job, and in some ways it sucks all the fun out of language. I was really starting to question my career choice when I discovered Language Log and a host of other great language blogs. Suddenly I remembered why I had gone into this field, and I realized how much I missed actually studying language. I started my own blog (which I then proceeded to mostly neglect for several years) and eventually went back for grad school.

    It’s definitely rekindled my love of language, but now I’m close to graduating and going back into the real world. I don’t think I want to be an academic, but the thought of editing full-time again fills me with a little trepidation.

    • korystamper

      I hear you on all fronts. The mom in me wants to give you career advice and make sure you remembered your scarf; the editor in me wants to buy you a beer and pat you on the back in solidarity.

  4. Rusty

    So, is this what this blog does for you? It keeps your love for words on fire?

  5. Marc Leavitt

    The problem with wordwork, and it’s a good problem, is that it gets in your blood; after awhile you can’t escape it. I stopped being a fulltime editor some years ago, but everything I read, whether it be newspapers, matchbook covers, toilet paper wrappers, gets edited. It almost drives me crazier than I already am, but I wouldn’t change for the world.

  6. No harm done to this Brazilian here (no wax intended, I’m a straight guy). I just wish you had the chance to step out of yourself someday (no psychism intended), but since that’s a no-no, I can at least tell you from out here: you draw excitement out of boredom like few people do, and – I bet you – no lexicographer has. The late editor was just unlucky enough not to be able to wait until you came of age and silently lighted up that dead room.

  7. Charming Charlie

    I am a college graduate and didn’t know how words got into a dictionary until an ask-the-editor offered me the answer. It’s strange that classrooms and churches spend so little time conveying where their texts come from, all the while relying on their authority.

  8. TKG613

    As a writer, and editor and an English teacher of 15 year old boys, this column makes me howl with laughter for too many reasons to count. Thanks for making my day!!!!!

  9. Fun, fun, fun! Thank you for writing this. Even better: thank you for adding a delicious teaching moment to those kids’ lives. At least some of them will fall in love with English — maybe even with Shakespeare — because you drove off the road into wild thistles for a few kilometers.

  10. Marc Leavitt

    “a while” – forgive the typo.

  11. A very, very inspiring article. Thank you so much. Especially, for “Give me silence when I’m defining, but give me conversation to keep me falling in love.”

  12. Jim Shea

    Thanks, Kory, for the delightful column and all the memories it stirred. I worked at Merriam as an editor in the sciences from 1971 to 1979 and, it seems, much hasn’t changed. I don’t know if you are working out of the building on Federal St. in Springfield, but back then there were no cubicles, just a large open expanse with desks lined up, one behind the other. We were largely a bunch of 20 and 30 somethings and did manage to keep the art of conversation alive, whether it was surreptitiously in the back production room, downstairs in the cafeteria at the morning and afternoon coffee breaks (promptly at 10 am and 3 pm for 15 minutes), or on the front steps at noon in the good weather. We used to sun ourselves on the roof too on nice warm spring days. I loved the field for a while, but couldn’t afford to work in it!

    Nice to be reminded,
    Jim Shea (WNCD 8th edition)

  13. Byron

    Stumbled across an interesting tidbit, regarding the birth and death of new and old words, respectively. The academic paper is here: http://arxiv.org/pdf/1107.3707v2.pdf

    In a nutshell, words have always been duking it out for usage in a Darwin-would-be-proud survival of the fittest. Lately, it seems, less-used words have been dying fasters, while fewer new words are being coined, presumably due to widespread use of spellcheck and more strict editing.
    A journalist’s condensation of the above paper: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/mar/21/why-words-are-dying

  14. Emily O

    “When someone would stop by my desk, I’d startle and freeze like a mouse watching the owl soar in, fascinated by its pinions.”

    This sentence is wonderful, like the rest of the article and your entire blog. Thanks for adding comedy to the lives of us word-nerds. Every day I hunt for sentences that are so juicy and substantial that, if given a choice between dinner and the sentence, I’d pick the latter. Above is a prime example. Thank you for writing!

  15. Pingback: Blogspektrogramm #13 | Texttheater

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