Tag Archives: correspondence

Editorial Correspondence: Introductory Paragraphs I Cannot Send

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

Dear Sir:

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

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Dear Sir:

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

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Dear Ma’am:

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

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Dear Ma’am:

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

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Dear Sir:

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

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Dear Sir:

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

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Dear Student:

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

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Look, Guy:

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

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Dear Richard from Toronto:

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

—————

Dear Ma’am:

Thanks but no thanks for your email.

—————

 

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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

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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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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Filed under general, lexicography

Facts and Truth, Irregardless

It was such a lovely day. I was finishing up my work for the day and, about ten minutes before logging off, decided to post the most looked-up words of the day on Twitter. Those who follow me there know I try to have fun with the words when I can, because you should have fun with this crazy language. But there was one word that had been at the top of the list for several days and that I had been ignoring because I knew that simply mentioning it would cause a firestorm of controversy. But it was such a lovely day! It was sunny and warm, and as I weighed whether or not to post this word– this is not an exaggeration–two birds lit on the telephone wire outside my office and began to sing. I thought, “Oh, c’mon, Kory. Quit being such a moron. Just post the damn word. No one cares, everyone’s on their way home right now anyway.”

So I posted this:

You'd think I'd know better.

I hit “post,” left my desk to refill my water glass, and less than two minutes later came back to a bunch of responses that essentially all read “WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU, MORON?!?” Sighing, I looked out the window. The birds, sensing trouble, had buggered off. My eyes lingered on the sky; perhaps a satellite would fall out of it and crush me. A slip of paper caught my eye; it was a little inscription I came up with about a year ago and had presciently stuck on the window sash. It reads Aliqua non possunt quin merdam moveare, and it is Latin for “There are those who cannot help but stir the turd.”

“Stamper,” I muttered under my breath, “you turd-stirrer.” Resigning myself to another hour of work, I began answering the hate mail.

What got me sighing was not the response to that tweet, nor the fact that people felt strongly enough to tell me I was a moron. No, what made me long for sweet oblivion was the knowledge that, in a few minutes, I would once again come up against the Facts/Truth Dichotomy.

Lexicography deals entirely in fact–I know, the orgies, glitter, and drunken prescriptivism threw you, but it’s true. You spend much of your time as a lexicographer in pursuit of facts, and you spend the rest of your time as a lexicographer coming to terms with the facts you’ve just found. Recently, I stumbled across an early cit that led me to believe that  Shakespeare had coined the verb “puke.” A few hours later, Ben Zimmer told me that the Oxford English Dictionary had antedated it, so poor ol’ Willy was no longer the coiner (in print) of “puke.”  This saddened me–I really wanted Shakespeare to have coined “puke”–but the facts were in, and they were against me. What can you do in the face of facts?

Evidently, when it comes to words, their use, and their histories, you can just ignore them.

Let’s take “irregardless” as an example. Many people claim is that “irregardless” is not a word–but, see, the facts tell us it is. I have evidence of its use in edited, printed prose, going back to about 1912. It’s probably been in spoken use even longer. Now, the facts also tell us that it’s not generally accepted and that, if you choose to use it, others may think you are a dolt. But none of that matters to a bunch of my correspondents. One of them tells me it cannot be a word because it is a double negative. Another tells me that it is not grammatical. Another simply says “unacceptable.” How can you possibly have a dialogue about usage, substandard terms, the stigmatization of dialect, and whether context matters with people who have, for all intents and purposes, stuck their fingers in their ears and are yelling “UNACCEPTABLE” at you over and over again?

Why do people react so strongly? Because they believe these deeply held grammatical convictions are capital-T True. Remember the metaphor of building blocks I used in an earlier post? If I begin tapping at one of the blocks, what happens to that carefully constructed tower? It falls–and then what? I guess we all start speaking Esperanto or something. But if we glaze that tower in the unassailable veneer of Truth, then the only way to take it down is with an act of violence and aggression. Violence is never nice. Our little worlds are protected. Our existence is justified.

This attitude and response is not restricted to usage issues, of course. Most often I run into this attitude when it comes to etymology. People tell me all the time that they love etymology (and some of them even remember that it’s “etymology” and not “entomology,” which is the study of insects). Then they usually say something like this: “One of my favorites is the story behind ‘sincere’!” I force a smile and start eyeing the room for exits. I know what’s coming next: they are going to tell me that “sincere” comes from the Latin sine cera, “without wax,” supposedly because poorly made statues were rubbed with wax to hide imperfections and well-made statues were stamped with or advertised as “without wax.” They are going to spend several minutes relating this story to me, and I am going to have to tell them that it’s absolutely not true. If I take advantage of the moment when the hearer falls silent in shock and growing indignation, I may launch into a quick lecture on statuary in the Middle Ages, medieval methods of manufacture, or even the availability of wax to the common merchant. (I’m a medievalist, and I will take every opportunity I can to whip out that degree and beat someone about the head and neck with it, metaphorically speaking.) But I do this in vain, because the response will always be a variation on “But my PRIEST/DYING MOTHER/GOD HIMSELF told me this!” Suddenly, etymology has become a matter of loyalty. A trusted source has given me this information. And who are you? You are just some myopic boob in an office somewhere, not caring at all about the rest of us! What do you know about my trusted source? Are you saying my granny was a liar??

The same logic gets applied to contested usage. You say you have evidence that “irregardless” has been used since 1912 (fact). But it’s not a word because my teachers told me it wasn’t (truth)! I trust my teachers, but I don’t trust you, so I will disregard the evidence of its use and merely bleat over and over again that “irregardless” isn’t a word until you shut down your computer and pray for a meteor to smash into your office. Because if I trust you and admit that “irregardless” is a word, then why did I spend so much of my childhood trying to learn all these damn “rules” when I could have spent my afternoons getting to first and possibly second base with Jeannie Sucweki instead?? Therefore, and to make me feel like my youth was not wasted on stupid things that don’t matter, “irregardless” is not a word.

I understand this reaction so well, truth be told, because I struggle with it constantly. I am a displaced Westerner among New Englanders and everything I say is scrutinized for evidence of latent hickishness. I walk into the office and whisper “howdy” to the receptionist, and she looks at me like I have just stripped to my skivvies in the lobby and performed an interpretive dance. I used the positive “anymore” on Twitter once (as in, “People text anymore instead of calling”), and one of my colleagues was floored at my quaint nonstandard usage–which is completely standard outside of New England. Another colleague used to come up to my desk and ask me to say words like “drawers” just to lighten his mood. My vowels are all wrong, I add extra syllables to profanities when I’m tired, and I use “y’all” unironically.

And then, when I visit my ancestral lands west of the Mississippi, I am judged for my quick speech patterns, my new (undoubtedly elitist) vocabulary, my children’s East Coast accents. When I go out to eat with my parents and order a soda and a hoagie instead of pop and a sub, I am mourned over.

The longer I’ve been a lexicographer, the more aware I am of the gray areas of English. Etymologies change as we gain access to more of the written record. The given dates of first written usage should never be set in stone. Start delving into actual historical usage and you’ll discover that lots of the time-honored rules we were taught as children are nothing more than the opinions of a bunch of dead guys who wished we all spoke Latin. What’s a body to do?

A body can do what a body always does: speak and write the way we want to. If you think “irregardless” is a crusty, weeping pustule marring the face of English, then don’t use it. But there’s no need to act like “irregardless” is an untreatable cancer of the language.  We got through John Dryden and his asinine “no terminal preposition” rule okay–we’ll get through “irregardless,” too.

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Filed under correspondence, general

Dear Merriam-Webster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Contractually Obligated Post of the Year

The beginning of January is one long, exhausted sigh around here.  We’ve endured months of anticipation accompanied by fervent requests and hints; the news outlets just won’t shut up about the season; and it all culminates in one frenzied evening of eating, yelling, and flying paper. In the morning, you feel bloated and vaguely hungover. Looking at the detritus of the night before, you are filled with self-loathing and weltschmerz. You vow not to do this again next year, but even as the thought finishes sludging its way through your aching head (which you are slowly and deeply rubbing, as if physically reconfiguring your gray matter is the only thing that can help you now), you hear the lie of it. This happens every year.  You let this happen every year. You’d cry if you had any dignity left. As it is, all you can do is moan:

“Goddamned Word of the Year.”

As you well know, lots of dictionary companies and other assorted language outfits release a Word of the Year. The American Dialect Society (the only group that sensibly chooses their Word of the Year after the year is actually done) met last week, cast votes, and chose the zeitgeisty “occupy” as their Word of the Year. M-W sifted through the look-up logs and chose “pragmatic.” Oxford chose “squeezed middle,” which is a PHRASE, OMG you guys, and lo, there were complaints on the Internet that a two-word phrase cannot be the Word of the Year. Dictionary.com chose “tergiversate” because it’s an awesome word and why the hell not?

But let’s not recap all the Words of the Year. The press has done a good job of incessantly covering them for the last two months. Truth be told, I’ve got a raging signifier hangover.

It’s not that I think that the Words of the Year aren’t interesting, or that annually highlighting a word that has seen tremendous use or linguistic change isn’t a good idea. It’s that sociological mountains are made of linguistic molehills.

Merriam-Webster generally chooses its Words of the Year by going over the look-up logs and seeing which word had the biggest or most sustained spike in look-ups that year. This is interesting because it tells you what words people associate with certain events. Past years’ words have been “austerity,” “bailout,” and “integrity,” and there have always been opinion pieces that follow the Word of the Year announcement and make grand, sweeping generalizations about the State of This World based on our look-up logs.

In 2007, we decided to mix it up. We put together a list of the most commonly looked-up words and the most popular words submitted to our New Words & Slang forum, and let the website users vote on them. What a stroke of genius–instead of relying on look-ups, which really only track words that people don’t know or aren’t sure of, we could have The Public vote on what the most important word of the year was! What could be more democratic?

Behold democracy in action: the Word of the Year in 2007 was “w00t”–yes, with zeroes. As words go, I think “w00t” (or “woot,” if you are allergic to mixing letters and numbers) is great fun. It’s a harmless word, very creative, and someone clearly had fun organizing a voting campaign for it.

The response to this announcement was amazing. Because “w00t” was suddenly hailed Word of the Year, people felt like it had to have some sort of significance in our modern culture. And so the reaching began. I read article after article about how, with this choice, Merriam-Webster was finally giving legitimacy to the gamer/hacker community; how the choice of this word is representative of a carefree national mood; how it shouldn’t be eligible for Word of the Year because it’s not even a word–words are made up of letters and there are frickin’ ZEROES all up in “w00t”; how this is stupid because “w00t” is soooo 1997, not 2007; how this is further evidence that no one cares about language anymore. There was even a lighthearted backlash campaign which generated about 1,000 e-mails, all of which landed in my inbox, and all of which I personally and cheerfully answered. (I also cheerfully and personally answered the hundreds of not-so-lighthearted e-mails about how we were sending the English language to hell in a l33t-lined handbasket.  Are you still sure you want this job?)

Language is a form of communication and is therefore public, but our interactions with and responses to it are intensely personal. There are, according to the Ethnologue, currently over 328,000,000 English speakers in the world spread out over about 115 countries. No one word will sum up the year for all of them, or for even a fraction of them–nor should it. The vibrancy of English as a living, growing language is due in no small part to the diversity of its speakers. “Occupy” has a very different connotation and tone for someone who lived in the Warsaw Ghetto than it does for me, and if they are unhappy about its sudden ascendance as Signifier of the Zeitgeist, well, I can’t blame them. The personal nuancing of Words of the Year happens even without Nazi war atrocities. In my household, “pragmatic” is not a positive word; it is secret code for “penny-pinching killjoy.” “Squeezed middle” refers alternately to the toothpaste tube after the kids have been at it or me in jeans. My own Word of the Year is not printable in polite company. Or even among you, dear readers.

Linguists and lexicographers may track language and choose a word that has had extensive use in the last year, but those choices are just the opinions and reports of a small subset of very nerdy people (represent!). There’s no reason to blow them out of proportion.

But since the press has to have something to write about, I hope that you will all enjoy the opinion pieces that appear this time next year after I successfully spam the look-up engine and make “amazeballs” the 2012 Word of the Year. (Sorry, ADS.)

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