We’re All Mad Here

Lexicography, as I may have mentioned, is a very solitary job, and as such, it generally draws the type of person who is delighted to work in near isolation for years on end and in silence so deep it makes monks fidgety. The lexicographer requires only the corpora, the pinks, the project. The only triumphant score that accompanies their work is the mouth-breathing drone of the HVAC system punctuated occasionally by a borborygmus rumble from the water cooler. From this quiet, white egg of industriousness hatches a rara avis in pasteboard plumage: a dictionary.

This is a conveniently trumped-up mythology. True, there is an overwhelming amount of isolation and quiet on the second floor of our office. But look closely at the egg: it is riddled with hairline cracks, its sticky insides only held intact by the taut, thin membrane under the shell. It has been slowly, softly battered, beaten with a million question marks: your egg has been done in by answering editorial correspondence.

You sign up for a job in the Scriptorium, and you rejoice: no more dealing with people, praise Samuel Johnson! Then once you are lulled into a sense of security by the HVAC and given your own customized date-stamp, we spring it on you: people will write in with questions, and you, our expert, will spend a little time each day answering them. Upon hearing this, some new hires slump like deflating balloons; some widen their eyes in surprise until you can see nothing but animal-fear sclera; and some blink furiously, as if holding back tears and recriminations.

I was a fool and just nodded. I was doomed.

With correspondence, as in all other parts of dictionary life, we specialize: science queries are handled by our science editors, the pronunciation editor handles pron queries (and by “pron,” I really do just mean “pronunciation”),  and so on. But there is a whole class of correspondence that is not doled out by subject area yet still requires special handling, and very few editors have the training, skill, and experience to handle this type of correspondence. I speak, naturally, of the nutbars.

Every profession has its crazy fringe, but the crazy fringe of lexicography is a blazing corona that overwhelms its dull core of fusion. They shine bright and write often. And sometimes they even have questions about the English language that require response.

The first time I was asked to answer one of these emails, I was so taken aback that I actually got up from my cubicle and bothered my boss. “I just got the email you forwarded,” I murmured. He spun around in his chair and looked at me flatly. I continued, “Do…do you really want me to answer this?” It was a mess of rainbows, numerology, political conspiracies, and religion, all wound tightly around one question: why the alphabet is in the order it’s in.

“Well, answer the alphabet question.” He paused. “You don’t need to address the correspondent’s obvious issues with reality.”

So I did. I wrote a little lecture on the development of the Latin alphabet and sent it off. The reply was immediate. “I was 5 years old.  My family gave me the encyclopedia about Infinity to become immortal.  I call upon Infinity from the book.  I lost the books and seeking info or someone that help me locate information on infinity and call upon it again to become immortal.  Please call me at number below!!”

I rubbed my face and gave silent thanks that I don’t have a phone at my desk. While I was trying to set my brain to right with deep tissue massage, another email came in. It was from my boss, and all it said was, “That was handled very well, Kory.”

I know my doom when I see it.

My own nutbar flavor has turned out to be the angry conspiracy theorists, people who think that the word “left” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word with negative connotations and is therefore offensive to people who are left-handed, or who read the entry for “door” and feel that it is Communist. I am tasked with sending courteous replies:

Dear XXXXX:

Thank you for your e-mail. We are sorry to hear you are offended by the travel ad on our page, but I can assure you that its appearance was truly coincidental. We do not keep track of your IP address, nor do we track your movements on the Internet and force our ad servers (and ad servers on other sites) to show you ads for international travel. We appreciate that you wish to stay without the boundaries of the continental United States for the rest of your “natural-born life,” as you say, but our ads should not be taken as part of a conspiracy to lure you away from our country. They are merely ads, nothing more.

Dear XXXX:

Thanks for your e-mail. I must admit I am confused by your assertion that our definition of the noun “camp” is a lengthy denigration of Elvis Presley. His name does not appear in–or even near–the entry. If you’d be so kind as to give me the full title of the dictionary you are using, I would be grateful.

Dear XXXX:

Thanks for your response. The title of your dictionary will appear on the front cover of the book, or along the spine. If you are not sure what words are part of the title and what words aren’t, it is safest to send me all the words on the front cover of the book or on the spine.

Dear XXXX:

Thanks for your e-mail. The pronunciation we give at the word “croissant” is correct. Though the word is a borrowing from French, the English word “croissant” has its own meaning and pronunciation, as do all words borrowed into English from another language, and the anglicized pronunciation has been in use since the late 1800s. I am not sure where you got the idea that George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress ordered us to change the pronunciation of “croissant,” but it is false.

Dear XXXX:

We do understand that you dislike the word “floor,” but we will not be removing it from our dictionaries as it has widespread, sustained use in current and historical English. I also regret to say that, even if the White House gets involved in the matter, we will still not be removing the word “floor” from our dictionaries.

Dear XXXX:

The dictionary search engine is a small computer program whose sole job is to analyze an input into a field (in this case, the word you are attempting to find an entry for) and search our database for an exact or near match to the inputted word. “Democratic” is given in the suggested entries list when you entered “democrasy” because it is orthographically similar to the word you entered. We can assure you that the dictionary search engine was not written by Bolsheviks, nor is it programmed only to return Socialist or “unAmerican” words, as you suggest.

My boss says I am unflappable–in fact, this adjective has appeared in every one of my annual reviews since I took up my citations and followed Webster. I have my own ways for maintaining the integrity of the mythic egg: I type out the responses that I dearly want to send and save them to a folder on my computer called “Nobody Knows The Trouble I Seen.” I craft marketing taglines out of some of the most offensive or ridiculous emails I receive (my favorite: “Merriam-Webster: ruining Steve Martin’s Christmas since 1843″). I also spend a lot of time silently mouthing “OMG” and “WTF” at my monitor.

If I am unflappable, it is because these emails are a reminder of my own idiocy: my memento morons, if you will. I am an expert on this hot mess of a language, a rara avis in my own right, but even I make dumb mistakes. And even further, I understand the impulse to rage against perceived authoritarianism and injustice. But it’s hard to picket the English language: it doesn’t have an office, it doesn’t have a phone number, and it will not respond to your petitions. Combine those factors, and it’s not that big a leap from “this word describes something I find horrible” to “the dictionary that enters this horrible word is horrible” to “this ivory-tower elitist is defending something horrible and NEEDS TO BE STOPPED.” Who doesn’t want to stick it to The Man, even if he’s made of straw?

We all tend towards our very own kind of crazy. Just a few days ago, my daughter was browsing the Internet and found a store that makes custom wedding-cake toppers. “Some of these are great,” she said, and I peered over her shoulder. One caught my eye: a horse in a tux standing side-by-side with a chimp in a wedding dress. “Oh, nice,” I harumphed. “Make the bride a chimp. Yes, just another fabulous portrayal of women.”

My daughter looked up at me with a face I recognized: the same “WTF?” face I make at my nutbar emails. “Mom,” she said carefully, “neither the bride nor groom is human. The artist is just having fun. She is not saying that men are horses or that women are monkeys. You just need to calm. Down. GEEZ.”

Lexicography is solitary, but humans are social creatures, and sometimes we need a good, hard “WTF is wrong with you” to bring us back to humanity. I blinked at my daughter and mentally tore up the angry letter I was composing. Memento moron, Kory: remember you’re an ass, too.

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74 Comments

Filed under correspondence

74 responses to “We’re All Mad Here

  1. Onto my real comment.

    I think that you’ll mouth another WTF when you read this because the only thing I got out of your post is that you have a daughter, and most probably married — which is saddening because I have a crush on you.

    It sounds like writing responses to those type of emails is quite challenging. Kudos to you for keeping your cool and for being sensitive to the lesson your daughter pointed out.

    As always, the post is enjoyable and insightful. Makes me feel motivated to do better at writing my own posts. ‘Til next time!

  2. To “OMG” and “WTF”, consider adding “JMJ” to your silent rhetorico-initialist arsenal. It’s an Irish equivalent, standing for “Jesus, Mary and Joseph”. You may find sometimes that invoking precisely this formidable trinity will be just what it takes to ward off the crazy.
    Great post, as always, Kory.

  3. Glad to hear you’re so even-tempered! You’ll need that when W4 comes out, and you have to hear from all the Dwight McDonald wannabees vent there outrage. Lol! BTW is Webster’s Biographical Dictionary likely to be updated and reprinted? It’s a real boon to “pron” fanatics like myself.

  4. zotmeister

    What’s that word for the process of a phrase bringing an image to mind? (Or am I only thinking such a word exists? My “what’s that word” questions often have no pre-established correct answer.) I ask because “borborygmus rumble from the water cooler” should receive the Most Amusing [That Word] Award of the Week. – ZM

      • zotmeister

        No – I’m not referring to specifically when a word is designed to emulate a sound. This is visual, and the words don’t have to be made for the purpose. I suppose I could have gotten away with ‘picturesqueness’, but I could have sworn there was a word to describe the actual bringing of the mental image to life, not just the end result. – ZM

        • For your original question, “description” seems to be a good answer — at least that’s what I instantly thought of when you wrote “process of a phrase bringing an image to mind.”

          • zotmeister

            That would be the cause; I’m looking for the effect. I’ve since come up with ‘ideation’, but I think I’m missing something more exact – perhaps a technical term from literary study, art, psychology, or neuroscience – that describes specifically *words* bringing a *picture* to mind (rather than just any stimulus bringing any sort of concept to mental solidity), like an ‘eidetic’ based on language instead of memory. I’ll know it when I see it, but I haven’t seen it yet (and I’ve been looking). – ZM

        • zotmeister

          I had “the tingle” this morning, that moment when my loganamnosis recedes upon finding a perfectly suitable word for what I wanted to express – even though it might not be the word I was actually searching for, it fits the bill perfectly, often better than what I originally had in mind. I think I restricted myself too much by looking for a noun; sometimes adjectival/adverbial forms of words have connotations beyond their noun bases. And so I give Ms. Stamper the Most Amusingly Illustrative Phrase Award of the Week for last week. – ZM

  5. I’m going to have to borrow the phrase “memento moron”. That’s a gem.

    So if I found an error in MWDEU (an improperly attributed quote exemplifying a usage), who should I email about it?

  6. Ø

    Thank you for using the wonderful word borborygmus (though I might have written “borborygmic” to avoid part-of-speech confusion).

    For ejaculations to be used at moments of weary incredulity, may I also recommend “Lord give me strength” and “Mother of God!”

    • korystamper

      I have a whole repertoire of utterances and rely on the divinely inspired ones quite a bit. But, for some reason, “Lord give me strength” has just reminded me of “Sweet sassy molassey!” and think I’ll give that a whirl next time one of these emails rolls in.

  7. Ah, the lonely life of the lexicographer. Great rant!
    But what’s with all the egg metaphors?

  8. Rusty

    Regarding your comment to your daughter, I thought exactly as you did. And if you calm down, you will not be you. (You would even have to get another name, for Kory would no longer fit you.) Stay the way you are!

    • I think you should remain vigilant as well, keep the sharpness and awareness. Nothing wrong with taking note of others ability to be “more tolerant” and appreciating it, but you are you for a reason.

  9. Beautiful! As for imprecations, my favorite comes from my daughter, a musician, who was being driven to a gig west of Harrisburg. They passed a billboard advertising a local delicacy, and the driver was so taken with it, he simply declaimed, “Sweet Lebanon Bologna!” (pronounced “baloney,” of course), and it now is useful in so many ways. I find I can’t do without it.

    However, have you heard? In his convention speech, Joe Biden praised the “enormity” of President Obama’s heart, and I don’t know what is more stunning to me: the unintended praise of monumental evil, or the fact that nobody’s talking about it. I know, I know, current usage… same as enormous… ah… sigh… another perfect word submerged. But if anyone hears about it, you will.

  10. Ha, thank you for the glad tidings! The sound of gnashing teeth comforts me, somehow.

  11. WilliamB

    Please, please, please … if we’re good readers and ask very politely, will you post some of your drafts from “Nobody Knows The Trouble I Seen”? I would be delighted to offer in exchange, a similar draft from the same folder at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

  12. I just have to say that this medievalist *loves* “memento moron.” I’m going to have to adopt that one myself, but I will always cite you, I promise.

    I also enjoy your blog in general, but this is the first time I’ve commented, I think. (Hello!)

  13. Ø

    The “turpitude” slip-up seems to have been not at the 1976 convention but at a press club luncheon in 1979. See the Rothberg column here.

    • Ø

      The man who misused “turpitude” in 1979 was Evan Dobelle, National Chairman of the Carter-Mondale Presidential Committee. It turns out that he later became president of the University of Hawaii. It appears that he was pushed out of that job for political reasons in 2004. Most of the links that come up when you Google “Dobelle turpitude” involve speculation about how the Board of Regents might have tried to justify that move.

  14. I’m partial to the Dead Milkmen’s “Jumpin’ Jesus on a pogo stick!”

    I have to deal with customer e-mails and moderating website comments. I don’t have to deal with anything nearly as lunatic as you do, though. My big problem is with people who have such a poor grasp on the English language that I can’t even decipher what they’re trying to say, which is a real bummer if they’re trying to ask a question.

  15. This is brilliant! And reminds me of when I did customer service email for a company that got regular emails about 1) being angry that the company was promoting the Illuminati, 2) being angry that the company was making fun of the very real threat of the Illuminati, or 3) wanting to join the Illuminati.

    I had a form letter for those emails. Your responses are much more fun.

  16. Ø

    It’s fitting that “We’re all mad here” got such a crazy-ass collection of tags. I hope you find occasion to use some of them again.

  17. Pingback: Post of Randomness | M.H. Lee

  18. marc leavitt

    Great post, Kory.

  19. Maureen Shields

    Thank you for writing and posting this! I generally don’t even crack a smile before noon, but this post had me laughing. At 8:00 in the morning. This is an unheard of event. I’m a public librarian and sympathize completely when it comes to dealing with crazies. Bookmarked and shared.

  20. Mei

    I absolutely love your “ask the editor” videos! I think the first one I ever saw was the difference between Christmas and Xmas…I’ve been hooked ever since. Thanks for the awesome work and amusing story!

  21. Brilliant post. Love your email responses, because after all it always pays off to be polite and respectful to the insane (actually by “pays off” I mean “is much safer”). Quite a few fans of “memento moron,” but I liked this little gem better: “Who doesn’t want to stick it to The Man, even if he’s made of straw?” Kory Stamper

  22. Lol – Very Funny. Calm in a crazy world.

  23. Great post! :)
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    Check mine out too?
    Cheers! :D

  24. I suspect you’re the only person ever Freshly Pressed to include the words boborygmous (I didn’t realize it could also be used as an adjective — geek glee moment) and sclera.

    This is a hoot. I had no idea people would inflict their insanity on you in this fashion.

    I also wonder how many people even know what the image is at the top of your blog. A dictionary?!!! Paper??!! A real book? I’m a journo/author and crazy about words and their derivations. My latest fun discovery was the origin of the common word, now, algorithm…

  25. Ah, the nutbar…as a government employee, I have had my fair share. In my current local government role, I respond to Facebook posts from local enthusiasts, who rejoice in criticizing or questioning our actions, decisions, policies and procedures. I actually appreciate their questions, because they provide the opportunity to quell the curiosity and quash the rumours of others who are more inclined to circulate falsehoods than seek the truth.

    On the subject of children, I have a teenage son who regularly tells me to “calm the …. down” (CTFD in Facebook / SMS vernacular). Certainly, having a cooling off period or a first drafts folder is a very good idea when dealing with the nutbars of the world.

    Great post!

  26. techietalk

    Reblogged this on Techie.

  27. So glad this was freshly pressed! I am going to look up “borborygmus,” “rara avis,” and “sclera” immediately. Thanks for the lesson and the laugh.

  28. Eri Berry

    Don’t remove floor from the dictionary!

    Ok, calm. down.

  29. These are, indeed, the things that make us mad. These, as well as the phrases fixin’ to and have a nice day. Congratulations on being Fresh Pressed. I’m going to see if there’s a new definition for that phrase now that I’m experiencing it outside the realm of the ironing board. Have a nice day (I’m fixin’ to).

  30. Thank you for introducing me to a whole level of crazy I never imagined existed. Great post!

  31. Pingback: harm·less drudg·ery « By The Soles of My Feet

  32. Crazy is as Crazy does :) Now, to speak in code the term “Cray Cray” works best when opting to use the word crazy in said company. Unless of course that catches on.

  33. Your replies to the emails are hilarious!
    I wasn’t aware that borborygmus is the word for that rumbling sound that embarrassingly sounds like a fart. Thanks for that!
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  34. Whoever you are, I think I love you. Or at least, your unflapped responses. Definitely my find of the day. :)

  35. Actually laughed out loud about the chimp and horse there at the end. Great stuff.

  36. hahahaha… great post!!.. we usually do need people to sort of shake us back into reality sometimes…And I’ve noticed that we get annoyed by others on quite a similar kind of thing that we ourselves do all the time.

  37. All that talk about solitude – this sounds like a job for me. And I have to admit that it sounds interesting dealing with crazy people on a regular basis.

  38. Congratulations for getting on Freshly Pressed. Your command of the language is befitting a lexicographer, and your usage in this post is hilarious. However, you forgot to mention which office Mrs. Webster, Merriam, uses. Is she on the second floor too?

  39. Thanks for sharing! Also congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  40. strathound

    Caught this on Freshly Pressed. Made me laugh. Thanks for the glimpse into your world. Picketing the English language, wonderful. Oh, and while I’m here, I’d like to kindly request the we remove the word “fart” from the English language. I find it both offensive and odorous. :)

    • The word “fart” is a linguistic perfection. I don’t use it every day but I’m glad that English is not controlled by some high-falutin’ academy the way French is, since people who don’t fart would likely be in charge.

  41. Ran into your blog while browsing through Freshly Pressed. Great writing, very funny. I just started learning French, which oddly enough has made me really think about how strange the English language really is with all its idiosyncrasies. Bonne écriture.

    • I’ve been learning French forever —practically my whole life— and it is only recently that I realized I’ll never get there because French is so extremely idiomatic. I tell young folks to learn Chinese instead.

  42. Just discovered your blog. (It’s brilliant.)
    Will you marry me?

  43. scrounger1984

    Oh this was brilliant. Hilarious. Honestly, I never thought much about what lexicographers do, but this certainly gives a rather crazy look at the job. I guess any kind of work has its crazy parts.

    But it really is curious though. Why IS the alphabet in the order it’s in? I’ve never thought to ask that. But now, being a history major, I’m itching to know why. Maybe you could print that e-mail you sent on your blog. :D

  44. you’ve gotta love the nutbars; how else would your brilliant replies ever make it into existence?! and i always thought that the alphabet’s order was decided by comittee; http://sacha1nch1.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/a-short-conversation-on-the-alphabet/

  45. The definition of door is totally communist. MEANS of access? It doesn’t get much redder than that, based upon my limited knowledge of communism. Means of production or something.

  46. James

    This was completely delightful and I’ll be keeping a lookout for pieces from Kory. There are a few nearly perfect bits I won’t quote.
    Nice.
    Keep writing, lexicographer.

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