Category Archives: general

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. 

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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.

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Alphabet Soup: TESOL and WMD Edition

Howdy from the international TESOL convention in Dallas, TX, where I am womanning the Merriam-Webster booth, giving a lecture about adverbs, and eating hamburgers as big as my head while the waiter and I discuss mohawk care. If you’re attending TESOL, come by the M-W booth and attempt to engage me in conversation!

 

For those of you who aren’t at TESOL this year, you may want to head over to the Guardian and read the story I’ve written for them on the words of the Iraq war. It is shorter and more informative than the usual drivel that appears here!

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Filed under general, in the flesh appearing

A Plea for Sanity this National (US) Grammar Day

I love National Grammar Day. I also hate National Grammar Day. That may be surprising–after all, I’m a journeyman grammarian. I make my bread deciding whether a word is an attributive noun or adjective, parsing adverbial uses over conjunctive uses, writing those delightfully boring usage notes in your dictionary.

I love National Grammar Day for all the reasons you’d expect a massive nerd like me to love it: a chance to revel in and highlight the most-dear idiosyncrasies of my language and our feeble attempts to explain it. All you need to do is read through all the Grammar Day haiku that have been written, each falling like a cherry blossom in late Spring, to get in the spirit.

But I also hate National Grammar Day, because it ends up being less a celebration of the weirdness of English and more an annual conclave of the peeververein (as gentleman-copyeditor John E. McIntyre so eloquently calls them). I have a friend–well, a “friend”–who, every March 4th, marches forth into a variety of local stores with a black marker and corrects the signage in the name of “good grammar.” Grocer’s apostrophes are scribbled out, misspellings fixed, and good Lord the corybantic orgy of less/fewer corrections. This friend also printed up a bunch of stickers one year that read, “FIXED THAT FOR YOU. HAPPY NATIONAL GRAMMAR DAY.”

When he was finished telling me about how he observes National Grammar Day, he waited for me to break into a big smile and congratulate him. So when I didn’t–when, instead, my face compressed itself ever so slightly into a look of utter distaste–he was very confused. “Seriously,” he said, “don’t tell me that’s not awesome.”

Reader: that is not awesome.

Yes, I know, the grocer’s apostrophe is a weeping pustule on the shining face of English, and people who don’t know the difference between “less” and “fewer” should be marooned on a small, ice-covered island in the Arctic Sea. You, as a person of intelligence, are entitled to that opinion. I will defend to the death your right to think that “less” and “fewer” should only be used in very specific ways (even though history proves you wrong), and I will even agree that I don’t understand how the grocer’s apostrophe came to be (though apostrophes can be tricky, and we know all how weird English plurals can be). What I cannot defend, however, is asshattery in the name of grammar.

You may think you are some great Batman of Apostrophes, flitting through the dark aisles of the Piggly-Wiggly, bringing Truth and Justice to tormented signs everywhere! But in reality, you are a jerk who has defaced a sign that some poor kid, or some poor non-native English speaker, or some educated and beleaguered mom who is working her second job of the day, spent time making. It’s not as though they see your handiwork and fall to their knees praising John Dryden because now they see the error of their ways. No–all they see is that the manager is going to make them do the sign again. And they may not have the education to understand why you took a Sharpie to their “2 tomato’s / $1″ sign.

Vigilante peeving does nothing to actually educate people. What it does instead is to shame them and make them feel bad about how they speak, write, and even think. Believe me, you cannot shame a person into good grammar. When I was learning Latin, I had a professor who was frustrated that I couldn’t get all the noun declensions straight within the first week of class. So whenever we’d run across a noun, she’d call out, “Kory–what declension?” And I would stammer, and say “Uh um um, third?” Then she’d smirk, or sometimes laugh, and say, “Of course not,” then tell us what declension the noun was. But I never heard, because I was shrinking in shame while a dozen smug faces turned to me and beamed at my failure.

When you work for the dictionary, people mind their grammatical p’s and q’s around you out of fear. “Oh,” someone will titter, “I hope I don’t make any grammar mistakes when I’m talking to you!” I understand the impulse to say this–shit, I’m talking to an expert–but it casts a pall on the conversation, because I know the other person is worried I’m going to start smirking at some point during the conversation and they won’t know what they did wrong.

Conversely, when people take you to be an expert and you make a dumb mistake, you are called out as if you had perpetrated a war crime. I can’t tell you the times that I’ve answered an editorial email and made a dumb mistake– “it’s” for “its,” let’s say–and received a reply that is itself full of errors and misspellings but which essentially says, “OH MY GOD THEY LET YOU EDIT DICTIONARIES AND YOU DON’T KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ITS AND IT’S? YOU’RE A MORON: LET ME SHO U IT.”

I won’t lie: there’s some delicious schadenfreude in catching an expert in an error. I recently stumbled across an On Language column written by William Safire, language maven, that uses “who” objectively when it should have been “whom,” and I just know that my face smeared into a big ol’ smirk, haha, William Safire, you doofus. Never mind that I would have used “who” that way. Never mind that most people would have used “who” that way.

English usage and grammar is a hot mess, to be frank: rules that contradict hundreds of years of use appear out of nowhere and for no discernible reason; spelling is off the hook; and even when something is nice and tidy (“sneak” entered English in 1594 and its past tense was “sneaked”) we complicate it needlessly (“snuck” showed up in the 1800s for no good reason and is now considered a standard past tense of “sneak” in the US). The reality is that many of the bits of grammar that we think of as wrong are actually just a matter of preference.

Remember, this National Grammar Day, that there are people all around you with varying degrees of knowledge of and appreciation for the intricacies of English. Instead of calling people out on March 4th for all the usages they get wrong, how about pointing out all the thing things that people–against all odds–get right? Can you correctly pronounce “rough,” “though,” “through,” and “thought”? Congratulations, you have just navigated the Great Vowel Shift. If I ask you to come up with synonyms of “ask” and you respond with “question” and “inquire,” congratulations: you have seamlessly navigated your way through 500 years of English history. Do you end sentences in prepositions? That is awesome, because that is a linguistic and historical tie back to Old English, the dyslexic-looking Germanic language that started this whole shebang almost 1500 years ago.

There is so much to celebrate about our language. English may be a shifty whore, but she’s our shifty whore. Please, this National Grammar Day, don’t turn her into a bully, too.

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Filed under general, grammar

Tainted “Love”: Correspondence from the Heart

One of the top lookups during the second week of February is always the word “love.” People go to the dictionary looking for poetry and romance and a possibly sexy deep insight they can put on a $2.00 greeting card. Alas: they find a very boring and completely unsexy definition instead. In a spirit of generosity, some of them write in to tell us what we’re missing; below you’ll find a few unedited selections from the Merriam-Webster correspondence files on what “love” really means. (For a deeper discussion on the inadequacies of our definitions, I’d encourage you to read the Seen & Heard comments at the bottom of the Online Dictionary’s entry for “love.”)

                         

Love is intelligent, there is more to Love then a Hug and a kiss, love has many acts in life and has many roles. Love is characterful.

                         

you are wrong love is great untill it gets you scared, because you don’t know what to do

                         

The meaning of love in your dictionary is wrong. The meaning of love is the Jonas Brothers.

                         

I disagree with your philosophy and logic. It is Flawed. Love is NOT an Emotion but an action of giving of self for another’s benefit. There are only Two emotions that are within the human existence. I feel Good, I feel Bad. Everything else is an action that is derived from these two feelings.

                         

Love is the Word. The word is not out, the Word is in. Jesus Christ is the Word. The Word is in God’s love. And so am I by the grace of God. I am what I am by the grace of God. You need to put a definition of rimjob on your site.

                         

My wife once told me in the ’90s what love is among human beings. ” The unconditional giving of oneself to another, putting their happiness and fulfillment ahead of oneself” –[name redacted]  I thought, this applied to parents and infants, a soldier in a combat zone, among adults.  I believe this is the simple unified definition of love for all people.

                         

What is love? Devotion? Pleasure? An experience? Passion for an individual?

Some say it just is, as you see Evident! A conclusion! Just like a butterfly! Beautiful, Fragile, Innocent, yet breakable! It’s all upside down! A new beginning to an old end! A sad story for the times to come! Few scenes from my life where moments meant more than mere words! Controlling with moods, just an undeniable feeling you get when you are around someone you take interest in! Just like a burning cigarette with a few moments of misery to go! Affection and tenderness felt by lovers! Intoxicating, Nothing more than a physical and mental attraction based on a strong sense of a sexual desire! Others say it’s just a flaw in our human structure, a mere chemical chain reaction and nothing more! Love comes and love goes, and sometimes can end so abruptly just as the best part starts! A broken heart! That one way dead end road you knew you’d never leave! A passion for every passing second! A gentle kiss! in the calm of a moonlight sky! You see love is many things, but there is only one sure way to describe it! Mysterious! It just is as im sure you’ve seen, emotions, Just as you see anger is loves despair! I’m torn between silence and violent passion! It is nothing more than a fantasy! One wooden stake through the heart! A poinsettia in poison rain! A beautiful world in a nuclear field! Some sort of peace of mind! A beautiful somewhere! A day ill never see! That one thing we all hope to find, And to continue in search of our dreams for a sense of understanding, a sense that we can share! A past reflection! A goodnight kiss! A memory I can’t replace! A common sense betrayed by your eyes! So as it was written in the sands of time, tomorrow who knows where love will be forever more! It was a Warm October night!

P.S.  Will I get paid for this?

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The Voice of Authority: Morality and Dictionaries

Last Thursday was a rare treat in our house: one of those nights where the homework was done early, the dinner was cooked by someone else, and snow was in the forecast. The evening stretched out, molasses-lazy. My eldest daughter sauntered into the kitchen where I was spending some meditative time with the pots and a scrub brush.

“So,” she began lightly, “I wanted to talk to you about your pottymouth.”

I hummed. She does not approve of my penchant for cussing.

“When I came into your office today, you said the s-word. Cursing is evidence of a lack of creativity.” It is always a delight to hear your feeble parenting parroted back at you.

“A guy said something stupid on the radio this morning and then defended it by misquoting the dictionary. I was just frustrated, that’s all.”

She whisked a dishtowel off the shelf and began drying pots. “Lance Armstrong?”

“What?”

“Are you talking about Lance Armstrong?”

“No. What are you talking about?”

She put the pot lid away before answering. “So,” she breezed, “maybe don’t watch the Lance Armstrong interview until after I’m in bed, okay?”

————————————

That morning, John Mackey, CEO of grocery chain Whole Foods, told NPR that he had been wrong to call Obama’s new health care plan “socialist,” as he had been doing for years. “It’s more like fascism,” he said, conjuring images of jackbooted Brownshirts roughing up old ladies and forcing flu shots on them. Not surprisingly, lookups of “fascism” spiked.

So did the outcry from the people who generally shop at Whole Foods–people my father would call “crunchy-nuts-and-berries types,” people who talk about sustainably harvested herring and know how to pronounce “quinoa.” John Mackey backpedaled, and twelve hours later was telling another radio host that he made a boo-boo as regards his choice of words:

I was trying to distinguish it between socialism so I took the dictionary definition of fascism, which is when the means of production are still owned privately but the government controls it — that’s a type of fascism.

I was finishing up my shift in the syntax mines with one more lookup tweet. Lookups of “fascism” were off the charts, and as I read the transcript of Mackey’s apology, both my mouth and the door to my office flew open. In popped my eldest daughter, and out popped “Oh, you have got to be shitting me.”

“Mom!” she scolded. Then, “Never mind, I’ll come back when you’re civilized.”

Later, while I washed dishes and waited for snow, Lance Armstrong appeared on everyone’s TV and told Oprah that he didn’t think that doping was cheating, and guess who absolved him of it?

He insisted that given the widespread culture of doping in the sport during those years, it was not possible to win the Tour without doping.

“Did you feel you were cheating?” Winfrey asked.

“At the time, no,” Armstrong said, explaining it with moral relativism. “I looked up cheat in the dictionary and the definition was to gain an advantage on a rival. I viewed it as a level playing field.”

Armstrong’s justification is laughable, of course, as is the reporter’s modifying clause in the final paragraph. We hear it and holler, “C’mon!” We may even check the dictionary, whereupon we leave a Seen & Heard comment at the entry for “cheat” that reads, “Lance Armstrong! C’mon!” But the fact is that appealing to an external authority to justify your position is, like the McRib sandwich and idiocy, an ontological constant: “the scriptures tell us…”; “the Constitution states…”; “my dad says…”. The dictionary is an authority, and so gets dragged into all manner of arguments.

“How come,” countless editorial emails begin, “you say that ‘biannual’ can mean ‘once every two years’ or ‘twice a year’? Stupidest, most useless definition ever! C’mon! Make up your mind! I have a bet riding on this.” When I write and say no one has won the bet, that “biannual” really can–and does–mean “once every two years” and “twice a year,” I often get the reply, “Whatever, tl;dr. Which meaning is right? I have a bet riding on this.” You can hear them grouse at their monitors: “Just pick one, Dictionary, because authorities do not contradict themselves. Once they do, they cease being authoritative, and you’re not doing so hot right now.”

Sometimes the stakes are higher. Ten years ago, we added a second subsense to the noun “marriage” that covered uses of “marriage” that refer to same-sex unions. Someone eventually noticed.

Outrage! screamed about 4,000 emails, all flooding my inbox in the space of a week. How dare you tell us that gay marriage is okay now?

I was not surprised, honestly: I drafted a long, thoughtful reply about how words get into the dictionary, noting that this sense of “marriage” had been used by both proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage since at least 1921, and finishing with the caution that the dictionary merely serves to record our language as it is used. I spent the next two weeks doing nothing but sending this reply out to everyone and their mother.

The problem–because when it comes to correspondence on this scale, there’s always a problem–was that I was making assumptions about what sort of authority people took the dictionary for. I realize that I’m sort of biased since I’m on the inside, but I assume we all know the dictionary is only an authority on the meanings and uses of words. These particular correspondents, however, believe that the dictionary is the publishing arm of the New World Order as run by a liberal, elitist cabal who is out to destroy everything a rational person and the annals of history hold dear. To them, the dictionary is a political tool and therefore a back-door authority on life itself, and this entry in particular was evidence of a conspiracy to force us all into SCOTUS-mandated gay marriages with Ellen DeGeneres or Anderson Cooper. They responded accordingly: Noah Webster is turning in his grave knowing that his dictionary, our moral barometer, can no longer tell the difference between right and wrong. Some people were not so sentimental: “Drink a cup of battery acid and eat broken glass, whore of Babylon,” answered one correspondent.

I closed my eyes and pressed my fingertips into my orbital sockets until I saw explosions, then forwarded the email to our President. “Do I qualify for hazard pay now? And the battery acid comment reminds me that we’re out of coffee upstairs.”

What proof do people have that the dictionary is not merely a record of language? Plenty, my correspondents sputter: everywhere you look, people are citing dictionary definitions as justifications for all sorts of wrong things. “The Supreme Court uses the dictionary in making their decisions!” one of my correspondents warned. “The dictionary is an authority on how we live life, and our morals, and it’s a pretty piss-poor one in my opinion.”

This is true: courts will sometimes use dictionary definitions in their deliberations. But though I am not a lawyer, something tells me they are not basing their judgments solely on the dictionary. As for the dictionary being a moral guide, it never was and it never should be. We enter the words “murder” and “headcheese” into the dictionary, but that shouldn’t be read as advocacy for trying either one of them. 

One of Merriam-Webster’s marketing taglines used to be “The Voice of Authority.” In truth, it’s a tagline that makes me uneasy: it makes the dictionary sound like the fatuously beaming spokesperson for capital-A Authority, and all that a sneaky or powerful person needs to do to validate whatever shenanigans they are up to is align themselves with that mouthpiece, possibly appropriate it and use to their advantage. I’m not pointing fingers at John Mackey or Lance Armstrong: I, too, have gone to the dictionary in the past to defend my own personal and totally non-lexical beefs with someone (pray for us now and in the hour of our peeving). But the people who tend to point to a dictionary definition and defend their moral high-ground based on it remind me of the kids I knew growing up who would close their eyes, open their Bibles, and declare that whatever verse their finger touched was going to be God speaking directly to them. Sometimes they landed on “Be not afraid, for I am with you,” and they’d trot to the playground and tell Angela to “shut up, God told me he was with me and I am going to ask him to make you barf all over your dress because you are stuck-up and dumb.” Other days, those kids were quiet and refused to play double-dutch or Chinese jumprope; that morning, their finger landed on “Now Esau was a hairy man.” For them, the Bible’s primary use was for sticking it to that big idiotface Angela.

So it is with the dictionary: if some people treat the Bible like a holy slot machine that occasionally pays out big, then others treat the dictionary like the defense’s case-clinching surprise witness. People escort the dictionary to the stand and use it to destroy the prosecution: “The Voice of Authority says that government oversight of health care is fascism”; “The Voice of Authority gives/does not give gay marriage validity”; “The Voice of Authority says I didn’t cheat.” We go with this line of reasoning, but only up to a certain point: no one ever says, “The Voice of Authority compels you to eat headcheese.” In that case, we recognize that the dictionary is just a book that tells you what people mean when they use the word “headcheese.” No one in their right mind would think that the dictionary is in bed with Big Deli.

I lampoon “The Voice of Authority” at home– “Hey, the Epiglottis of Authority is telling you to quit farting around and do your homework now.”–but I cringe when I see intelligent people imbue The Voice of Authority with moral weight. In the preface to his very first dictionary, the 1806 Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster spends time highlighting the wrongs of lexicographers before him. In the midst of his genteel rant, he notes:

This fact is a remarkable proof of the indolence of authors, of their confidence in the opinions of a great man, and their willingness to live upon the labors of others. It shows us also the extensive mischiefs resulting from the mistakes of an eminent author, and the danger of taking his opinions upon trust.

It’s a passage I reflect on frequently when trying to explain that the dictionary really isn’t an unchanging and infallible dispensary of moral wisdom, nor is it a prop for your personal convictions. It’s a book that tells you how people use words. Noah Webster treated it that way; the Supreme Court treats it that way; we should all treat it that way. The Epiglottis of Authority means it.

_______________

UPDATE: Via this Washington Post article, I find that James Brudley (Fordham U) and Lawrence Baum (Ohio State) recently published a study on how SCOTUS has used the dictionary. The whole paper is available for free download, but the last few sentences of their abstract tell you everything you need to know:

Yet our findings demonstrate that the image of dictionary usage as heuristic and authoritative is a mirage. This contrast between the exalted status ascribed to dictionary definitions and the highly subjective way the Court uses them in practice reflects insufficient attention to the inherent limitations of dictionaries, limitations that have been identified by other scholars and by some appellate judges. Further, the justices’ subjective dictionary culture is likely to mislead lawyers faced with the responsibility to construct arguments for the justices to review. The Article concludes by offering a three-step plan for the Court to develop a healthier approach to its dictionary habit.

Both the article and the paper are worth the read, if only to find that in 2008, one member of the Court decided to cite the definition of “promote” from Webster’s Second New International Dictionary in writing a majority opinion. Webster’s Second, I hasten to remind you, has been arguably out of date since 1935 and inarguably out of print since 1961.

 

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Filed under correspondence, general, lexicography

No Logic in “Etymological”: A Response I Actually Sent

Today I got an email from someone who watched the “irregardless” video and was appalled (though in the gentlest and kindest manner possible) that I said “irregardless” was a word. It’s not logical! Just look at that sloppy coinage: “ir-” and “regardless.” Why, it should mean “WITH regard to,” not “without regard to”! Who in their right mind is going to use “irrespective” and “regardless”–both perfectly serviceable words–to create a synonym of each word that looks like it should mean the opposite of what it does?

I drafted the reply I wanted to send and saved it to my Nobody Knows The Trouble I Seen folder. Midway through my real response, though, I changed my mind: this guy needed to see the NKTTIS response. Something about the tone of his letter was bothering me. It was not, as these letters usually are, arrogant. It was sad.

English is a little bit like a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go: it heads right for the goddamned light sockets. We put it in nice clothes and tell it to make friends, and it comes home covered in mud, with its underwear on its head and someone else’s socks on its feet. We ask it to clean up or to take out the garbage, and instead it hollers at us that we don’t run its life, man. Then it stomps off to its room to listen to The Smiths in the dark.

Everything we’ve done to and for English is for its own good, we tell it (angrily, as it slouches in its chair and writes “irregardless” all over itself in ballpoint pen). This is to help you grow into a language people will respect! Are you listening to me? Why aren’t you listening to me??

Like  well-adjusted children eventually do, English lives its own life. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like one of the Classical languages (I bet Latin doesn’t sneak German in through its bedroom window, does it?). We can threaten, cajole, wheedle, beg, yell, throw tantrums, and start learning French instead. But no matter what we do, we will never really be the boss of it. And that, frankly, is what makes it so beautiful.

Here’s the response for your erudition. (That is a fancy way of saying “for to make you smart”!)

Dear XXXXX:

I’m glad you enjoyed the video, which did indeed generate a lot of email. You raise a number of points, so I hope you’ll forgive the lengthy reply.

You’re right that “irregardless” is an odd blend of “irrespective” and “regardless,” but to jettison it sheerly because people “foolishly and incorrectly” created a blend without any regard to the etymological logic of the word is–to be blunt and etymologically logical–ridiculous. We’d have to get rid of thousands of words if we could only use the etymologically pure ones. I’m not just talking about the “to utterly destroy” sense of “decimate” here: “hangnail,” “apron,” and “pea” would have to go, as they were coined through sloppy misreadings of “angnail,” “napron,” and “pease”; “derring-do” gets the axe (or is it “ax”?) for being a slightly deaf phonetic rendering of Middle English’s dorring don; “airplane” is banned as a needless alteration of the earlier “aeroplane”; and so on.

Further, what do we do about those words like “decimate” that have dared to stray from their etymological moorings? Should we dump them, and if so, where is our chronological line of demarcation? Pedants argue that the “utterly destroy” sense of “decimate” is a modern invention, a festering boil upon the shining face of Proper English, but that particular use is 400 years old. In fact, most uses that people rail against are: shortenings and abbreviations go back to the 12th century, Chaucer created some highly illogical compound words, and Shakespeare verbed nouns.

As someone who spends her workday determining whether “however” is an adverbial conjunction or a conjunctive adverb and quietly cussing to herself, I appreciate that you want English to be a logical and tidy language. You’re not the first person to wish this, and you won’t be the last. Unfortunately, English stopped being logical and tidy about 1500 years ago, give or take, and no amount of correction will fix–or has fixed–this. And if I may go one further, all these horrifying and “wrong” words still have not managed to destroy (or even decimate, in the etymologically correct sense) the English language. It barrels on.

Language expansion, much like a good party, tends to be a bit messy. Happily, the English language is big enough for all of us. And if you take that sentence less as an expression of hope and more as a death knell for a much beloved language, well, there’s always Esperanto.

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Filed under correspondence, general, lexicography, the decline of English

Seeing Cerise: Defining Colors in Webster’s Third

When you spend all your time in a book, you think you know it. All the editors at Merriam-Webster know the Third, but now that we’re undertaking a revision of the beast, we’re ears-deep in it, drowning in stuffy single-statement definitions. Each of us breathes a bit shallower when we start futzing around with Philip Babcock Gove’s defining style, waiting for his ghost to dock our pay or perhaps cuff us upside the head as we sully his great work. Add to this the fact that, it’s true, familiarity does breed contempt. At least once a batch, I look at a perfectly constructed definition, accurate and dispassionate to the point of inhumanity, and wish I could add a wildly inappropriate example sentence just to liven things up a bit, like <Doctors suggest you eat kale until your pee is neon green with excess micronutrients.> So you may understand why, while I was slogging my way through a B batch, I was delighted to run across this:

begonia n3 : a deep pink that is bluer, lighter, and stronger than average coral (sense 3b), bluer than fiesta, and bluer and stronger than sweet william — called also gaiety

I lit up like a used car lot. As I was at my desk on the editorial floor, and my cubemate was in a foul mood owing to an e-mail he had received about the thesaurus entry for “love,” I very carefully laid my palms flat on my desk to keep myself from clapping and merely mouthed the words “average coral (sense 3b)” four times. It was, as far as I could tell, an accurate definition–but it was so evocative and full of personality that I began to wonder if it had been slipped in after Gove shuffled off this mortal coil and joined the editorial floor invisible.

So began a deep-pink goose chase through the Third, as I looked for “fiesta,” then “sweet william,” and then “average coral.” I eventually ended up at “coral,” where sense 3c yielded up the fresh wonder, “a strong pink that is yellower and stronger than carnation rose, bluer, stronger, and slightly lighter than rose d’Althaea, and lighter, stronger, and slightly yellower than sea pink.” Carnation rose was clearly the color of the pinkish flower on the tin of Carnation Evaporated Milk, and Rose d’Althaea was clearly Scarlett O’Hara’s flouncy cousin, but it was the last color that captivated me. “Sea pink,” I murmured, and incurred the harumphing wrath of my neighbor. As he stalked off to find a quieter corner, I wanted to stand up and shout, “I grew up 1500 miles from an ocean! I didn’t know the sea was pink!”

The Third’s color definitions became my break from defining or proofreading. After staring into the middle distance for a few seconds, I’d think of a color and look it up in the Third, invariably ending my chromatic excursions with a fool grin on my face. Vermillion: “a variable color averaging a vivid reddish orange that is redder, darker, and slightly stronger than chrome orange, redder and darker than golden poppy, and redder and lighter than international orange.” Lapis lazuli blue: “a moderate blue that is redder and duller than average copen and redder and deeper than azurite blue, dresden blue, or pompadour.” Cadet: “a grayish blue that is redder and paler than electric, redder and duller than copenhagen, and less strong and very slightly redder than Gobelin.” Electric! Copen! International orange! Prior to “begonia,” the Third was a middle-aged management man with a Brylcreemed combover, in well-pressed shirt-sleeves and pants that were a bit too tight at the waist, full of busy self-importance. Now, he was the same middle-aged manager, but unbeknownst to the rest of the office, he danced flamenco on the weekends.

How did this all this flamenco dancing slip past Gove, the authoritarian curmudgeon who oversaw the creation of Third?

Of course, nothing of this magnitude would have slipped past Gove. The color definitions in the Third were very carefully engineered in accordance with Gove’s vision of a dictionary that was not only completely objective and precise, but was also the most scientifically minded dictionary of its day. One only need look as far as the masthead of the Third to see the lengths that Gove went to: 202 lengths, all listed under the tidy heading, “Outside Consultants.” These consultants were pedigreed and heavily degreed experts in their respective fields, and their job was to provide direction for specialty areas that in-house editors may not have had much experience with, such as the Mayan calendar, traffic regulations, and (gasp) coffee. Gove took his color definitions seriously. There are seven consultants listed for color; there are only four total consultants for mathematics and physics.

The color definitions in the Third are a meeting of old and new. The chief color consultant for the Third was Isaac H. Godlove, a man whose name means nothing to you unless you study the history of color theory. Since fewer people study the history of color theory than do lexicography full-time, I will tell you that Godlove was the chairman of the Committee of Measurement and Specification of the Inter-Society Color Council, a member of the Colorimetry Committee of the Optical Society, director of the Munsell Research Laboratory (which gave rise to the Munsell Color Company, a company that was evidently formed specifically to standardize colors), and a guy whose business cards must have been double-thick fold-out jobbies. He was also the color consultant for Webster’s Second New International Dictionary.

For Webster’s Second, Dr. Godlove developed a system of defining colors by hue, saturation, and brilliance. “Cherry,” for instance, is defined in the Second as “A bright-red color; specif., a color, yellowish-red in hue, of very high saturation and medium brilliance.” If this doesn’t call to mind an exact color–and I don’t see how it could unless you were a colorimetrist–the Second helpfully requests that you also see the entry for “color.” The entry for “color” is three columns long in the Second, begins with the label “Psychophysics,” and includes a lively discussion on the different ways to measure hue, the nature of light waves, and the neurochemical impulses that, when combined, potentially yield the sensation we refer to as “color.” There are graphs and two color plates. It is serious business.

Godlove’s work as a colorist was brilliant, and Gove likely knew it. (He may have been a workaholic perfectionist who pioneered the Rule of Silence, but he wasn’t a moron.) To duplicate this sort of defining system would have cost time and money, and Gove hated anything that breathed inefficiency. It seemed best, then, to use the framework that Godlove had set up for the Second. There was one snag: these standardized definitions that appealed to an objective standard set up by The Standards People couldn’t stand on their own. Every definition followed the same pattern: “a color, [color name] in hue, of [high/medium/low] saturation, and [high/medium/low] brilliance Cf. COLOR.” But apart from one reference to an indistinct and very subjectively observed color, like “yellowish yellow-green” at “holly green,” there was nothing in the definition to orient the casual reader apart from the color plates given at the colossal brain-twisting entry at “color.” And, of course, there weren’t color swatches for every color defined in the Second. “Holly green” is only the yellowish yellow-green that is of low saturation and medium brilliance, whatever that may be.

Gove called Godlove back in to work on the color definitions of the Third, and to entice him, he gave him a team of color theorists to boss around. As astonishing as it sounds, color names had been increasingly standardized since the 1930s, and their use had even been analyzed in mass-marketing–very sciencey!–and these guidelines and findings were to be incorporated into the Third. Who better to do this than the man who helped pioneer color standards?

The working files for the Third begin with the Black Books: our editorial style guide as written by Gove and adhered to by editors under pain of death (or a stern note from Gove, which was essentially the same thing). The Black Books are 600-plus pages of single-spaced directions filed in loose-leaf black binders, and they used to sit on the top of one of our long banks of citation drawers, lending that little warren an air of regimented malevolence. You only had to look at them to feel the ghost of Gove march past you, wondering why you were gawking instead of busting your hump on the E file.

The Black Books have much to say on many things, but less to say on the color definitions than you’d think. Perhaps the very first sentence is all that Gove needed to say: “Godlove’s psychophysical defs of color names and their references had better be regarded as sacrosanct.” Full stop. General editors were absolutely not to be mucking about in the color definitions.

Gove let Godlove use the latest scientific techniques in discussing color: there are color plates in the Third, as there were in the Second, and there is an entire page devoted to explaining the color charts and descriptive color names in the Third, as well as a five-page long dye chart tucked neatly in between the first and second homographs of the word “dye.” (The explanation of color charts in the Third abandons the discussion of psychophysicality and favors equations. Very Cold War.) But there are two big differences between the Second and the Third.

The first is that the color definitions in the Third were to be relational–that is, every color could be defined as being more or less of something than another color entered in the Third. Formulaic statements regarding the hue, saturation, and brilliance (now called “lightness”) of a color were insufficient. The other revolution is that the analyzed work of “color specialists from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward,” as Gove put it, would be used in defining the color names in the Third. In other words, users of the Third were not just going to get the names of colors that were considered scientific standards: they were going to get the names of this fall’s fashions in the Monkey Ward’s catalog. Gove sums up: “The range therefore is in the direction of the layman.”

And what a kaleidoscope the layman got. You could spend an hour alone getting lost in “cerise” (“a moderate red that is slightly darker than claret (sense 3a), slightly lighter than Harvard crimson (sense 1), very slightly bluer and duller than average strawberry (sense 2a), and bluer and very slightly lighter than Turkey red”). No doubt people did. That may explain why we don’t define colors this way anymore.

The Third, with its zeal for modernism and science and objectivity, sometimes lost sight of the forest for all the xylem and phloem. As specific as the definition of “cerise” is–and as smart as I am–all I get out of that is that “cerise” means “moderate red” and that there is more than one sense of “Harvard crimson,” which must really piss Yale off.

Let’s also take into account that if we’re doing our job–defining from citations–then colors are frustratingly, pound-on-the-desk difficult to pin down. Text-only citations give you absolutely nothing to go on: “Misses large, available in Cranberry, Olive, Cinnamon, Ochre, Cadet, Holly, Taupe.” These might as well be the names of the Seven Dwarves for all the information they give me.

Clearly, then, you need a color swatch. That should make matters easier. Here’s a swatch for you:

That is a quick Google image search for “taupe color swatch.” Some of those colors are distinctly not what I think of when I think of “taupe.” And that’s part of the problem.

Even taking printing or monitor differences into account, the fact is that the use of color names is standard, but the things those names represent are not. One man’s “taupe” is another’s “beige” is another’s “bone” is another’s “eggshell” is another’s “sand” is another’s “tan.” By the time I came around, we had given up on Godlove’s precision and instead gave the very first part of the Third’s definition for most colors: “cerise” is, in the Collegiate, “a moderate red.” That’s not terribly specific, but it does allow for variations in reproduction, marketing uses, and psychophysical observations of a wide variety of colors that are called “cerise.” (Please do not tell me you are red-green colorblind.)

The only place where a little poetry comes back into the dictionary is at the definitions for the basic Roy G. Biv: the colors of the visible spectrum. In defining those colors, we hearken back to generations of lexicographers before us (even back to Grumpy Uncle Noah) and play a bit of word association: when I say “blue,” the first thing you picture is…what?

For some poor schmuck, stuck indoors at some point in the 1850s revising Webster’s 1847 dictionary, blue was the clear sky. Collegiate definers have determined that red is blood or rubies. Green is growing grass, or maybe it’s emeralds, and yellow is ripe lemons or sunflowers. Whimsy does still take a backseat to practical matters, though. “Orange” presented problems–after all, what’s orange? Oranges, of all things, and you can’t say, with a straight face, that the color orange is the color of oranges without deserving a good smack.

You’d think that this word association would work well enough, but there’s always tweaking that needs to be done. Cerise, for instance, is the color of…what, exactly? I’ll tell you what: it is the color of a suit set my grandmother owned and only wore to Christmas brunches at the Aviation Club, where she would sit me down in my velveteen layer-cake of a holiday dress and demand my silence while she and Mrs. Tannendorf would drink mimosas and bloody Marys and pine for the good old days of Eisenhower. That suit is, I am telling you, exactly cerise, but that doesn’t do you much good, does it? You also can’t make sweeping assumptions about your reader. Sunflowers are yellow–but chances are good that if someone learning English knows what the word “sunflower” means, they probably know what “yellow” means as well. We had to get a bit more creative when we wrote our own ESL dictionary (here the ghost of Gove frowns): “orange” in our Learner’s Dictionary is not a color between red and yellow, as it is in the Collegiate. It is the color of fire or carrots.

It’s not that these picturesque color definitions are more correct or incorrect than the definitions before them. But defining colors is a bit like defining the word “love”: likely to make you sound like a nitwit in the real world.  You could argue that a straight-up scientific approach is best; that no comparisons should be made at all in color definitions. But after the labyrinth of the Third’s “cerise,” the simplest route is beguiling: Yellow is the color of the sun or ripe lemons. Green is grass; red is blood, brown is coffee or chocolate. And blue is still the color of the clear sky.

(Please do not tell me you are blue-green colorblind.)

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Filed under famous lexicographers, general, history, lexicography, making word sausage

Dear English

You and I have known each other quite a while–37 years!–and we’ve certainly had our ups and downs. I’m told that I was gaga over you for the first few years, reading early, talking nonstop–not even pausing for breath when I talked but instead teaching myself how to speak on inhalation. Other people thought it was cute at first, but I know they soon grew sick of my obsessiveness with you and your willingness to feed that obsession.

My ardor cooled the longer we were together, which I’ve heard is normal in any long-term relationship. I had other interests that you didn’t share, though you were happy to quietly accompany me in my fort-making and bike-riding. You told me stories and kept me entranced, as though you knew that others were trying to tell me the truth about you, pulling me away from you. Mr. Hubbard, third grade, who taught me that some parts of you were better left to my own secret discoveries and not to be shouted on the playground when I jumped from the swings; Ms. Carlson, seventh grade, who told me that you were too deep for me and encouraged me to leave you for math; Ms. Talasek.

Oh, Ms. Talasek: bright-eyed, slightly manic, endowed with a magnificent Roman nose, and deeply, deeply in love with you. She’d swan about the room, book in hand, and elocute like her life depended on it. She began our studies on 1984 by reading aloud the first sentence and finishing with “Just listen to that! ‘Striking thirteen,’ the way those vowels all hammer together!” She beamed. My eyes widened, then narrowed.

We’ve never talked about this, but you must know that her admiration was the reason I spent less time with you at that point. To discover that someone else knew and loved you better than I did–and that you apparently welcomed her attention! Well. In truth, I’m not ashamed of what I did. Relationships falter. Ends come. I took her love for you as a sign that perhaps we were done. German was good to me, in its own regimented way. And perhaps this smacks of justification, but I would never have even known about Latin or Greek if you hadn’t introduced me.

And that. You’d think I’d have noticed all the Latinate and Greek words you had collected in previous dalliances. The Italian and Japanese. The French. No wonder you never commented on my indiscretions.

I tried to forget you and move on, but everywhere I looked, there you were. Boys with interesting hair wooed me with songs they’d written–songs that featured you prominently. On the bus, I’d stare out the window at the passing landscape, trying to get excited about German’s subjunctive, and the bus would stop right in front of a sign with you plastered all over it. I’d go hiking to escape you and find that someone had sprayed you all over the rock I was sitting on. You were under my skin, stuck in my head, written on my heart–and I’ll be damned if those aren’t all idioms that you gave me.

Running from you seemed like madness, so instead I decided to see what made you tick. I took Old English and studied your baby pictures. All those letters and digraphs you’d outgrown, how rough and tumble you were as a toddler, all swords and ships and battles. It was a different side of you. I was intrigued, but still cautious: I knew you.

Then that fateful February day. The snowdrops were up in spite of the snow. Thin winter light supplemented by humming fluorescents. A chilly subterranean classroom. Beowulf lines 212 and 213, recited aloud by me: streamas wundon / sund wið sande. I had to stop, suddenly breathless. The sound of it, the alliterative “s”, that deliberate and chewy structure. I said it again; it eddied around my mouth. I saw you. No swords or ships or battles.  Streams wound, sea with sand–you were beautiful.

I hope you bought the Beowulf scribes excellent beer in appreciation for all they did for you.

Chaucer documented your awkward teen years, Shakespeare your irreverent early adulthood. The more I read, the more I was captivated with you again. First loves are always the strongest.

It’s a good thing you are so amazing, because working with you has not always been easy. I don’t think you realize how absolutely illogical you can be. Tutoring ESL students was a trial of my affections. How could I defend you as a language with regular and easy verbs when your 200 most common verbs are all wackily irregular? You try explaining irregular plurals to a Chinese teenager. Don’t even get me started on your orthography.

But they’d go back to their rooms, and I’d petulantly pick up a book, and you’d throw me a word like “oleaginous.” You send me.

Lexicography is a mixed bag, I’ll admit. All your inconsistencies–not to mention your inconstancy–are paraded in front of me daily. You’re “regardless” to one set of people, and “irregardless” to the next. \LIE-brair-ee\ and \LIE-berr-ee\, doesn’t matter to you. Some of your nouns are singular and plural and count and noncount all at the same time. You want the whole world to be in love with you, and you pitch woo wildly. In every direction possible.

At the same time, you’ve been under attack. Dryden and the neo-classicists who wanted to put you in a Latin corset. Modern groups who protest the very existence of half of your vocabulary. People who want to hack off your unattractive bits and make you into their own wholesome-school-girl fantasy language. Yet you move on, (ir)regardless. Your weedy thriving isn’t an irritation to be tolerated–it’s a miracle, one I am daily grateful for.

According to my baby book, 36 years ago today I opened my slobbery little mouth, glubbed the word “cup,” and began the longest relationship of my life. Happy anniversary, English. I love you dearly, whoring and all.

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A Letter to a Prospective Lexicographer

We regularly receive letters from people who want an editorial job at M-W and ask for more information on lexicography. It’s my job to answer those letters. Here is the response I wish I could send.

Thank you for your interest in becoming an editor at Merriam-Webster.  I am happy to share some information on the field of lexicography with you.

There are only three formal requirements for becoming a Merriam-Webster editor. First, we respectfully ask that you be a native speaker of English. I think I should break this to you now, before you begin shopping for tweeds and practicing your “tally ho what”: we focus primarily on American English. It’s not that we don’t like British English and its speakers. Indeed, we have an instinctual, deep love for any people who, upon encountering a steamed pudding with currants in it for the first time, thought, “The name of this shall be ‘Spotted Dick’.” But since we are the oldest American dictionary company around, and we are located in a particularly American part of the world, we feel it’s best to play to our strengths.

Second, we ask that you have a degree from an accredited college or university. It needn’t be an advanced degree, nor does it need to be a linguistics degree. Dare I say it? I dare: most of us got degrees in things other than linguistics. While you are gasping in outrage, incredulity, and a little bit of disdain, allow me to say that all Merriam-Webster lexicographers end up dealing with words from a wide variety of fields–economics, business, physics, math, cooking, music, law, ancient hair-care techniques, and so on–and it helps to have a cadre of trained experts in those fields who will look up at you dolefully from their own defining batch when you too-nonchalantly wander over to their cubicle and ask them for their opinions on “EBITDA.”

If you feel that this information on degrees is so broad as to be unhelpful, know that we seem to collect medievalists for some reason. Our costume parties are awkward, rare, and yet entirely historically accurate.

Third, you must be possessed of sprachgefühl. This is an innate sense of the rhythm of language, as well as one of those delicious German words you’ll hear thrown around the office a bit (but not as often as you’ll hear “weltschmerz”). How do you know if you have sprachgefühl? You don’t know. Even if you think you might have it, you won’t really know if you are possessed of it until you’re here, letting the sentence “It’s time to plant out the lettuce” pad around inside your head, paying careful attention to how it rubs up against the language centers of your brain. Sprachgefühl is also evidently one of those things, like eyesight and hearing, that can dull with overuse: after several decades of working here, you will find that occasionally you go a little deaf as regards the natural rhythm of English, and you’ll trudge to your car at the end of a very long Thursday convinced that you are actually a native speaker of some weird Low German dialect and not English.

It’s okay if sprachgefühl eludes you; once you make this life-changing discovery, you are free to quit and pursue a career where your average weekly wage will not be a buck-fifty and as many Necco wafers as you can nick from the receptionist’s candy bowl at the end of every work day.

Those are the formal requirements for a job here. I would add these caveats regarding the lexicographical lifestyle:

1. In addition to sprachgefühl, it is also a good idea to be possessed of what the late lexicographer Fred Cassidy called “sitzfleisch.” Lexicography is so sedentary a calling that it makes load-bearing walls look busy by comparison.

2. It is not a good idea to come in thinking that you are All That as regards grammar and usage. You will have to set aside your grammatical prejudices in light of evidence, and if you are nothing but swagger and self-aggrandizement, then you will fall particularly hard the first time the Director of Defining tells you it’s totally idiomatic to use “nauseous” to mean “feeling sick.” Swagger and self-aggrandizement are not part of the lexicographer’s idiom. Fidgeting, social awkwardness, and a penchant for bad puns are.

3. “I knew that the work in which I engaged is generally considered as drudgery for the blind, as the proper toil of artless industry; a task that requires neither the light of learning, nor the activity of genius, but may be successfully performed without any higher quality than that of bearing burdens with dull patience, and beating the track of the alphabet with sluggish resolution.”

Heed the words of His Cantankerousness Samuel Johnson, the patron saint of the lexicographer. This passage is excerpted from his 1747 letter to the Earl of Chesterfield in which Johnson proposes writing a new dictionary of the English language. “Bearing burdens with dull patience,” “beating the track of the alphabet with sluggish resolution”–and that’s what he thought before he started writing his dictionary.

It may well be that none of this dissuades you. That’s fine: slight derangement is not grounds for disqualification from a career in lexicography.

You should know, however, as you move forward in your search that jobs in lexicography are few and far between. Our late Editor in Chief used to tell people it was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. This is so vague as to be maddening, so I am happy to clarify: it is a matter of being in one of the offices of a dictionary company just as the Editor in Chief says, “I think we may need to hire some more lexicographers.”

Take heart: one of my coworkers wrote once every three months for over a year about editorial jobs until finally our Director of Defining hired her. She’s a fabulous editor and we are lucky to have her. She also has a linguistics degree. All God’s critters got a place in the choir.

It’s worth noting that, though lexicography moves so slowly it is technically a solid, it is nonetheless changing. New online tools mean that you have more information at your fingertips, which means you must engage that sprachgefühl a lot more and know how to use a computer. (You’d be surprised.) Modern lexicographers have the luxury of writing for an online medium, where space is not at a premium and no one has to proofread the dictionary’s end-of-line breaks in 4-point type on blue galleys ever, ever again. When I came on, all new editorial hires were required to read and take extensive notes on the front matter to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. This is no longer required, thanks to the tireless work of Amnesty International. And, of course, we’re allowed to talk inside the building now.

I hope this information, while not particularly encouraging, is helpful. If you are still interested, against all better judgment, in a career in lexicography, do feel free to send us your cover letter and resumé. We will keep it on file for a year, occasionally taking it out to marvel at your enthusiasm and shake our heads in wonder.

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