A Lexicographer’s Guide to Real Words

One of the occupational hazards of being a lexicographer on social media is that you are often subjected to arguments about whether something is a word or not. Lexicographers see these complaints and swiftly scroll right on by them, though we do sometimes indulge in a judicious (and perfectly justified) subtweet. We’ve learned that arguing with people about whether something (usually “irregardless“) is a “real word” is a Sisyphean exercise in futility, and lexicographers get enough of that at work.

But that doesn’t help you, the person being hollered at on Twitter that “mines” isn’t a real word. Who better to tell you what a word actually is? So in the interest of settling all those arguments, forever (amen and amen), here is a short (senses 1 and 2) lexicographer’s guide to “real words.”

 

I think [insert reviled word here] isn’t a real word.

Let’s back up. Why do you think it’s not a real word? Because by a linguist’s definition, if it communicates meaning to an audience, then it’s “a real word.”

That’s ridiculously broad. 

Oh gurl:

How do you communicate thoughts to an audience? You might communicate by uttering a string of phonetic sounds, making signs in a manual language, or writing a series of characters. Meaningful units of these sounds, signs, or written characters are often what we would consider to be words.

In short: if it’s part of a language system and communicates meaning, linguists consider it to be “a real word.”

But it’s illogical/ugly/stupid.

Just because you don’t like it doesn’t make it somehow “not real.” This is one of the more absurd notions that people have about language: that the mere dislike of a word invalidates its very existence. You’d never see that logic deployed effectively anywhere else in the real world. [Ed. note: The White House is not the real world.] I hate heat, for instance, and think temperatures above a very dry 80F can just nope right on out of here–but summer arrives every year, like clockwork, just to piss me off. Should my personal feelings about the power of the sun ruin everyone else’s beach vacation?

Besides, “illogical” and “stupid” rely on your knowledge base, and lemme tell ya, that’s smaller than you think. You may think that “inflammable” to mean “flammable” is illogical, because “in-” means “not,” but you would be wrong. “Inflammable” comes from the Latin inflammare, which means “to inflame” or “to burst into flame.” The “not” “in-” has nothing to do with it. “Inflammable” meant “flammable” before “flammable” meant “flammable”!

And even if a word is illogical or stupid, so what? You know how many completely unremarkable words arose from a stupid misreading? You use “cherry” and “apron” just fine, even though “cherry” came about because some 14th-century doofus thought the Anglo-French “cherise” was plural (it wasn’t), and “apron” came about because court clerk read “a napron” as “an apron” and rendered it as such, and then future readers thought, “Oh, man, the clerk to Edward III says it’s ‘apron,’ I better get in line,” even though that same clerk used “napron” later in the Household Ordinances, and here we are.

Language is not math. Language is people, and people are a mess. Yes, you too.

But this word is jargon, and jargon is meaningless, so it’s not a real word. Use words that actually mean something!

Jargon is, properly, the technical language of a particular group or activity. It can also refer to obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions–a definition that is pretty damned jargony. But not all jargon (sense 1) is jargon (sense 2). Hell–not all jargon (sense 1) is even all that technical! If you like a sport, have a job, go to school, have a hobby, or watch TV, then you know and use jargon. You can stream the Royal Wedding online while cabling an Aran sweater, checking the box scores for last night’s game and helping your kid figure out their math homework using manipulatives when the commercial breaks are on. Your whole life is marked by jargon of one sort or another, so stop getting your knickers in a knot over it.

But this supposedly real word isn’t in your/a/any dictionary!

It’s a common misconception that dictionaries enter every word in a language. This is a misconception started by dictionary companies who were desperate to outdo one another in sales and so made some dubious claims about how their dictionaries were “the sum of all human knowledge” and how, in dropping some bucks on one, you could “hold the English language in your two hands.”

There are many, many, many more words that do not make it into dictionaries than do, and this is the nature of the dictionary. If English is a swift moving river, then a dictionary is a cup of water scooped from that river: static, small, hopefully a good representative sample of that river, but not the river.

There are lots of reasons why a word might not be entered into a dictionary. First, what do we consider discrete words? Is the noun “compact” a different word than the verb “compact”? Are the different meanings of the noun “compact” different words? What if the different “compacts” come from different etymological sources? Is every inflection of a word a different word than the root? What about compound words like “slingshot”? Is that a different word from “sling” and “shot”? What about potential compound words, or potential inflections that we might not have now but we could at some point in the future (“mouses”), or potential affixal uses (“unfriend”)? What about words that no longer exist? What about initialisms and abbreviations? Are these all discrete words?

Incidentally, this goat rodeo is also why people who tell you that English has however many hundred-thousands words in it are full of bullshit (which can be one word or two words, depending on how you reckon).

Every professionally edited dictionary has criteria for entry–generally speaking, widespread use in printed prose for a sustained period of time–and many words never meet that criteria. Even good words! “Prepone,” a brilliant verb which means “to reschedule to an earlier time than originally scheduled” and is based on “postpone,” doesn’t yet meet the criteria for entry at Merriam-Webster, and it’s not only a clever coinage, but so frickin’ handy! Does away with the dumb confusion caused by “move back” and “move up” (“We’re moving the 10am meeting back to noon.” “So you’re moving it up to noon?” “No, we’re moving it back to noon.” “Was it originally at noon?” and then everyone sounds like a pathetic mashup of The Confederacy of the Dunces and “Who’s On First”). Everyone should use “prepone” in print, but not enough people do, and so it languishes in the database, noticed but not defined.

And there’s another sticking point. For a word to get into a dictionary, it needs to be found and tracked by lexicographers–and, to be frank, lexicographers are experiencing job creep as the industry shrinks. Gone are the halcyon days when a lexicographer had an hour or two daily to read and look for new words: now we’re busy writing and copyediting articles for the website, answering correspondence, running social media feeds, moderating comments on those feeds, brainstorming new products, doing media, writing editorial reports, proofing sales reports, coding for the database, troubleshooting the outdated data in the database…oh, and defining. Your sparkling, wonderful coinage, which you use constantly on Twitter and have, as I told you to do, used in letters to the editor or in editorials your town paper has printed…sorry I missed it. I was busy justifying my corporate existence with a click-positive article on the phrase “three sheets to the wind” in conjunction with an ad campaign we’re running with Budweiser.

The whole dictionary racket ignores the flashpoint where language is actually made: speech (or signing). Words are rarely born in print, but that’s all the lexicographers track. That means that all those words you use only in family conversations, or new words that are coined for one in-person interaction and never used again–those very real words–are lost to us. Until we hack Alexa to record everything you say and send it to our offices, that is. (j/k, lol)

Steve Kleinedler puts it best: “the English language changes too quickly and is too vast to be completely catalogued.”

Okay, let’s try this: how do I know when a word isn’t real?

Not to get all ontological and shit, but if it is a signifier of meaning used in the course of communication between people, it’s real. Even if it’s unintelligible to you! I don’t speak Polish, but I’m not going to say that Polish words aren’t real just because I don’t understand them.

You’re making me sound like a massive prick.

What’s the point, really, of declaring that a word isn’t real? It’s ultimately a show of power or superiority over someone else, and so, in that sense, it is the marker of an absolute unit of shittiness. I’ve made my feelings about correcting people’s speech known before, and this is just another variant of it. It centers someone else’s language in your own experience, and it’s ridiculous to think that yours is the default experience for everyone. Language is bigger than just one person! That’s a feature, not a bug!

So what am I supposed to do when I see a word that I think isn’t a real word but which you, a so-called professional, tells me is?

Ask about it! And if you can’t ask the person who uses it, ask a linguist, because they love it when people ask questions about things that they can actually research, instead of dumb questions like, “Oh, you’re a linguist, how many languages do you speak?”

Why do people use “mines”? There is a dictionary that will explain why–and it will also tell you about “hern” and “theirn” while it’s at it. Has someone used a jargony word, like “logomark,” that you think is redundant? Do a quick search online for how a logomark differs from a logo, and consider that perhaps, though jargon, it is a word that serves a purpose that neither “logo” nor “trademark” completely serves. Did someone utter “irregardless” in your hearing? Buy fifteen copies of this book and read the fourth chapter repeatedly. Revel in a language that is always growing and lives well beyond your grasp!

And stop tagging lexicographers on Twitter. We’re really only there for the dog pictures, man.

 

 

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Filed under lexicography, peeving and usage

Down the “Shithole”: Why Lexicographers Need Your Profanity

Though the average lexicographer is as odd as a horse in trousers, we are, at least, a staid and quiet horse in trousers most of the time. There’s very little that will rile us up, and that’s a feature, not a bug.

But there is one event that makes most lexicographers startle and gasp in delight, one event that will get us to look up from our desks and start shivering and chittering like lab rats on cocaine:

God bless the motherfucking Washington Post

When a well-respected newspaper prints the word “shithole.”

For those who have been blissfully, contentedly residing under a rock (and may I join you?), President Donald Trump held a bipartisan meeting with senators on American immigration policy today, and when protections for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and some African countries were discussed, he was reported as having responded, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”

As soon as word reached us in the bowels of the syntax mines, all activity ceased. It’s not notable because Donald Trump said it, it’s notable because it made it into newspapers–several of them, even!–unexpurgated. We all fizzed with excitement: time to take some motherfucking citations!

The American press has traditionally been loath to print unseemly language like cusswords in full, and this has been a problem for lexicographers on a number of levels. As we all know, dictionary entries need to be based on a word’s accumulated and sustained use in print. We don’t just use that body of accumulated use to come up with a word’s definition, which tends to be one of the easier things to describe, but also its status and its register. Status and register are fancy word-nerd ways of describing where exactly in the language a word sits, and how a word is deployed. Is a word academic jargon? Is it the sort of thing you only see in a Pope or Blake poem? What about Doctor Who fanfic? Is this word a slur? Or is this word boring and everywhere, the Wonder Bread of words, remarkable only because it is wholly unremarkable? If a word is used in a particular context, or with a particular sort of connotation, a lexicographer should tell you that by using those italicized labels that come before the entry: informal, formal, technical, academic, literary, vulgar, disparaging, obscene.

To get a good sense of whether a particular use merits a label, and what kind of label, I need as much evidence before me as I can get, and I need it from as many different types of sources as I can find. My work is hampered if print sources refuse to print indelicate language. Censoring out profanity–especially in news–presents a false reality, a place where presidents and lawmakers are always prudent and prim, and their language always, always decorous. I know as surely as I know that horses do not wear pants that presidents and lawmakers swear on the regular. I hope that they are as creative in their swearing as the writers of “Veep” would have me believe. But my hopes and dreams are not hard evidence. So when the word “shithole” shows up above the fold in the news section of a newspaper, that tells me, as a lexicographer, that this word is not just the province of BuzzFeed or Twitter or pulp fiction, but might actually be (shitty, shitty) Wonder Bread.

Of course, my lexical needs are not anywhere on a newspaper editor’s radar as they stare down a presidential “shithole.” They are thinking of all the angry letters, the cancelled subscriptions, the <shudder> phone calls. So some print sources have tried a middle road, one that communicates the spirit of the quote without getting into the actual letters of it:

shithole NPR

“Trump Uses Vulgar Language To Refer To African Countries, Sources Say.” NPR.org, Jan 11, 2018

This little squadron of asterisks gets across to readers that the word in question is too offensive for this classy joint, while also giving enough context clues for the average reader to figure out that the word which so offends is totally “shithole.” NPR wasn’t alone in whipping out the asterisks; Ben Zimmer reported on Twitter that MSNBC initially went with asterisks, then changed to “shithole,” while Fox News was asterisks all the way down.

Any time lexicographers see censoring like this, we sigh and skip right on by, dumping the quotation out of the citations database. The average reader may assume this word is “shithole,” but your lexicographer is not an average reader. What if this word is actually “sluthole“? “Slophole“? “Suckhole“? English is flexible, and her speakers are remarkably creative when it comes to profanity (cf. “Veep,” above). Or what if the reader or listener isn’t actually familiar with any of those words, including “shithole”? Linguist Todd Snider gets me: “I wonder how many Fox News viewers are thinking about Haiti having lots of sinkholes?” And asterisking can go way too far, even for some of the sweariest among us. When news of the “Access Hollywood” tapes broke, I was at the gym, pretending to run on the treadmill while I stared at a TV on mute. The chyron read “Trump on tape: ‘Grab Them By The *****’.” You know how many five-letter objectionable words there are that fit in that phrase? A whole fucking lot–enough that by the time I ran out of options, I had run an additional (very slow) mile.

The truth is that there have been fairly uneven policies in print sources about what to print and when, but as we head deeper into the Trump years, we’re seeing more consistency. More newspapers are opting to quote him without euphemizing him: the Washington Post’s Executive Editor Marty Baron told the Washingtonian, “When the president says it, we’ll use it verbatim. That’s our policy. We discussed it, quickly, but there was no debate.” “Shithole” was in nearly every story I saw, and it was in more headlines and chyrons than it wasn’t. It was common enough that towards the middle of the news cycle, it was already being riffed on: Phil Mudd on CNN called himself “a proud shitholer,” and then proceeded to break the CNN record for indelicate words per minute, go Phil.

And in our office, this is cause for celebration. I’m fond of saying that lexicographers chart the language, good, bad, and ugly–but we can only chart what we see. And while you may not want to be drowned in a wave of “shitholes,” for lexicographers, that’s the sort of thing we call a party.

 

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A Contest and Some Library Love

I love libraries. In elementary school, I’d grab one of the whistle chairs, drag it underneath the reshelving desk, and hide under there with a stack of books until the verrrrrry last moment of line-up call. My last two years of grade school, my teachers made a deal with me: if I finished all my work early and well, I was allowed to go to the library to read on my own. Heaven. I’d shovel my math worksheet at my teacher and zoom across the hall, where the librarian was ready with another book recommendation, another reminder that I still had two books out, my favorite whistle chair in place under the reshelving desk. The library was the only place I could relax into who I was: a frizzy-haired, buck-toothed, book-loving nerd.

That love continues. While writing Word by Word and while researching for this next book, my local libraries have been indispensable sources of hard-to-find books, research advice, and fiction-bingeing, I-can’t-write-another-word-about-stupid-dictionaries solace. I took my kids to children’s story hour when they were growing up; as they hit their teen years, I encouraged them to go to the teen program the library ran. My little town library hosts events for senior citizens, lectures, classes; provides free computer use and internet access; hosts the town spelling bee and provides meeting space for community organizations. The librarians have never refused to help, even when my question is absurd (“I don’t suppose you have a facsimile of William Bullokar’s 1586 Bref Grammar for English?” “…Can you spell that?”). Every day, librarians show up to work and deal with drunk people, angry people, confused people, and people who just want to sit on the Internet all day and shitpost, so you can understand my fellow-feeling for them.

So, in honor of libraries and the librarians who staff them, I’m running a little contest. Here’s how it works:

  1. Go to a local library.
  2. Check out a book. Any book. Something that catches your eye.
  3. Take a selfie of you and your book. (If you check out ebooks or audiobooks from your library, take a screenshot of the checkout receipt, or a selfie of you reading/listening to said book! ALL BOOKS IN ALL FORMS WELCOME.)
  4. Post it to Twitter or Instagram with the hashtags #WordbyWordLibraryLove and #Sweepstakes.

On October 7, I will choose five entries: those five folks will each win a signed copy of Word by Word.

How does this help your library? Well, it’ll get your sorry butt in there, for one. But I’ll also be making a donation to the American Library Association to help support all the work that libraries do.

The contest is open to anyone over 18 living in the United States (except for residents of VA, because you have very weird laws regarding contests, and residents of the U.S. territories and possessions, because ditto). You’ll find the full rules here.

See you at the library.

Stamper_WordByWord_Sweeps (1)

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Answers I Wish I Could Send: Descriptivism Edition

But first, a quick housekeeping note:

My little electronic chickadees of joy, I have been overwhelmed by all your great comments and questions and accolades for Word by Word! Literally (sense 1) overwhelmed: you have sent so many emails and letters, so, so many, that I am practically drowning in email and letters. I will do my level best to answer them, but it is going to take me months to catch up, and in the meantime I have this pesky delightful full-time job defining words like “chorizo.” I appreciate your patience.

(Additionally, you can stop telling me why manhole covers are really round. I’ve already been told by no fewer than 47 of you. I am reproved.)

And now, back to our show blog!



 

If the editorial email is to be believed, many people have figured out that lexicographers are descriptivists, but they have not yet figured out what, exactly, we are describing. We attempt to untangle this existential crisis in the latest in this ridiculously long series on dictionary correspondence.


I saw that you said on Twitter that “news” did not stand for “north, east, west, south.” But you’re descriptivists! If enough of us say that “news” really stands for “north, east, west, south,” then aren’t you guys supposed to change it to that? You’re descriptivists!

We are descriptivists! Thank you for noticing; we are tired of climbing to the roof of the building in shifts to toll the great Merriam-Webster bell and yell “DESCRIPTIVISM! DESCRIPTIVISM!” to the uncaring neighborhood. We don’t even get paid overtime for it, can you imagine?

Descriptivism, however, has its limits. It’s a very good way of describing what words mean based on their contextual use. It’s also a very helpful approach when you want to know why you can’t end a sentence with a preposition (you can) or whether you should use “by accident” or “on accident” (“by accident”–and yes, we know that it doesn’t make sense because of “on purpose,” but c’est l’Anglais).  It is, however, pretty ill-suited to etymology, which is what you’re talking about here.

I know that this idea goes against the zeitgeist, but etymology, to put it in Lebowskian terms, is not just, like, your opinion, man. It doesn’t matter how many people write in or @ us on Twitter to say that they believe that the real etymology of “news” is “north, east, west, south”: that doesn’t make it any more real. Believe me, if all it took to will something into being was the electronic tsunami of  Twitter consensus, then @dog_rates / this llama would have won the 2016 presidential election and Starbucks would never have run out of unicorn frappuccinos.

We’ve gone over this before, but etymology is the tedious and soul-crushing work of tracking down the origins of words, no matter how boring they are. Also, most acronymic etymologies are bogus. No matter how many people believe that “news” really comes from “north, east, west, south,” we will never be able to go back in time and rewrite history such that their opinion turns into fact. No, not even Doctor Who would do that for you. Don’t ask me how I know; I just know. (I am the 14th and final Doctor).

Besides, if “news” really were from the cardinal compass points, it’d totally be “nsew.” Who on God’s green earth says “north, east, west, and south”? No one, that’s who. Don’t ask me how I know; I just know.

aVOIR DU POIDS.. HOW LOVELY TO STATE THAT HUMANS.. HAVE THIS ABILITY TO WEIGHT..
ACTUALLY  ANIMALS.. HAVE THE UNIQUE CAPABILITY TO STANDARDIZE,, ACCORDING TO SPECIES.. THEIR OWN, MANNER OF WEIGHTS. AND MEASURES..
LETS. TALK,, A BLUE JAY,, PICKS ONLY THE BEST OF PEANUTS.. AND BIRDS. ALL SELECT BY WEIGHT THE BEST NESTING MATERIALS. BY WEIGHT.. AND IF YOU NEED FURTHER REFS..
LOOK AT A BEAVER, IN ALL TASKS,, ONLY SELECTING,, THE BEST WEIGHTS  OF MATERIALS.. ACCORDING TO NEED,.. PERHAPS.. THE COGNITIVE ABILITY OF A SPECIES. SELECTING THE BEST MATERIALS.. BY SELECTION BY WEIGHT.. MUST ENTER IN A NEW.. AVOIR-DU- POIDS..DEFINITION.. OR AVOIRPOIS.. THE  REFLECTION IS YOURS.. BUT, THE REALITY. IS A FACT..

Yes, LETS. TALK,, but I’m going to do it like this because I cannot quite master whatever convention you’re using that dictates the doubled comma versus the doubled period. And what does the single period and single comma mean, then? Truly, the editorial email never ceases to serve up a unique capability to standardize. The world is abundant in wonder.

As I am not a zoologist and have only the dimmest memories of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” I will have to take your word for it regarding the specialized weighing and construction techniques of the blue jay and the beaver. But your claim that the entry for “avoirdupois” is lacking this information is a canard, an albatross. I am adept with words for both birds and failure.

Descriptivism in dictionaries really only extends to lexical and near-lexical information about a word. That is, if you want us to describe what the word “avoirdupois” means in the sentence “The coach limited his recruiting to linebackers of a certain avoirdupois,” we can do that. That is lexical information, and that’s the sort of information that nerds like me ferret out of the English language. We’ll even go so far as to give you near-lexical information: we might tell you that the word “avoirdupois” refers to the weight of general goods, or it appears in Shakespeare to generally refer to heaviness. But using the entry for “avoirdupois” as a jumping-off point for information about how animals weigh things is sort of like getting Peter Mark Roget high and then making him watch 24 consecutive hours of Animal Planet. You might learn some things in a very meandering, tangential way, and it might be entertaining in parts, but mostly you’re going to leave with a contact-high headache and a strong desire to never watch Animal Planet again.

Simply because lexicographers are descriptivists doesn’t mean that our task is to describe everything remotely connected to a word. Believe me, I’d love nothing more than to talk about the Vǫluspá and the place of female seers in medieval poetic texts when I am revising the entry for “poetry,” but it’s better for everyone if I don’t. There are lots of books that describe things: systems, love, death, the way that animals weigh nesting materials, why manhole covers are round. They are just waiting on your local library’s shelves for you. They’re good books, Brent!

Okay so hear me out, I think we as a society have been spelling the word ‘vampire’ wrong. When the old time traditional vampires speak, their speech impediment does not allow them to correctly pronounce words beginning with the letter ‘b’ and instead pronounce them with the sound from the letter ‘v’. For example, this can be seen in the well known quote from Dracula “I want to suck your ‘vlood'”. We as a society have known the word ‘blood’ to know he pronounced it wrong, but when he introduces himself as a vampire it is the first time we have heard this word so we assumed that ‘vampire’ was the correct terminology. However, I believe that due to the speech impediment, the correct word he was trying to say was ‘bampires’.

Never let it be said that I didn’t hear you out.

The spellings of words as presented in the dictionary are completely descriptivist–they’re based on how the word is spelled in the vast majority of modern prose–so this is whoa if true. As I am no expert on old-time traditional vampires and their speech patterns, I had to go back to the authoritative source: Mel Brooks’ 1995 hit, “Dracula: Dead and Loving It.”

Though the quality of this documentary footage has degraded over the decades, the preserved audio provides us with an excellent test case: it features Dracula saying the word “blood” twice in quick succession (“I cannot be up during the daylight. It must be the young blood of Miss Lucy! Her blood is still in my system!”). If you listen closely, you will clearly hear the bilabial stop /b/. It is not a voiced labiodental fricative (/v/). But Dracula doesn’t use standard American-English phonetics: he does show an occasional tendency to swap the voiced labio-velar approximant /w/ for the labiodental fricative. We perhaps need to take into account the fact that Dracula has lived in England, however, which would account for his widely wandering phonology which at any moment places him in Italy by way of Poland by way of New York. Truly, Dracula is, linguistically speaking, all things to all men. What he is not, however, is a “bampire.” We are sorry to disappoint; thanks for writing.

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Book News, Kory News, And No Political News Whatsoever

Seven days.

We live our lives from milestone to milestone, and sometimes we hold an upcoming milestone in our hands like a lucky penny, where we can rub our thumbs over it again and again, in secret joy. Seven days!

My debut book, Word by Word, will be out in the real world in seven days.

Most of you know this, because you have suffered through countless non-dictionary blog posts about it, but for those of you who don’t know, I’ve set up a blog page about the book, and I’ve updated my travel page so you can find out where I’ll be reading and plan a road trip to ask me why I am single-handedly destroying the English language. If you want up-to-date information on where I’ll be and which stores I have visited and left secretly vandalized signed copies of my book, sign up for my newsletter, which shows up in your inbox with blessed infrequency.

In order to accommodate a book tour (!!!), I’ve taken a short leave of absence from Merriam-Webster, which means there will be a paucity of “Answers I Wish I Could Send” posts until June. But the extra time means I can finally finish the dozen-odd draft blog posts that have been sitting here since 2015, which is when this book jawn began.

Careful readers will note that I said “debut book,” and not just “book,” and that’s because I’m working on a second nonfiction book, which will be published in a few years (Lord willin’ and the crick don’t rise). Yes, that’s right: the first one didn’t kill me, so I’m willing to try again.

None of this would have been possible had it not been for you, my original cadre of word nerds, who carved time out of their day to read (and sometimes heckle, Kevin) over-long posts here. Y’all are the best, and I hope I get to meet you and sign your book.

Stay tuned for actual content! And thank you.

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A Bigly Truth: The Sordid History of Politics and the American Dictionary

Lexicographers are trained to thrive in the face of endless, grinding monotony, but even we are sick of this presidential campaign. Don’t get us wrong–millions of people have rushed to the dictionary to figure out what exactly each of the candidates has meant when they used “locker-room” or “hombres” or who am I kidding with the “candidates,” it’s practically all Trump, everyone is looking up every  morpheme that burbles from his disproportionately small mouth.

As most people know, we take delight in reporting what sorts of words people are looking up: when life gives you “bigly,” make bigly-ade. But this election season, whenever we have reported on any lookup driven by an election event—and let’s be frank, just about everything this year has been an “election event”— we are dragged into the twittering political fray. “Clearly took out words that would make Trump look bad,” one Twitter user complained; another responded to a tweet about the infamous “mazel tov cocktail” incident with a link to Benghazi conspiracy theories. It’s not just Twitter: months ago, I was in an argument with someone I know and respect very much, and when I appealed to a professionally edited source—namely, the one I edit—to back up my assertion, my friend deflated in disgust. “Merriam-Webster is a liberal dictionary,” they sneered, and I fizzed and sputtered my way out of the room, picking up my jaw as I went.

The dictionary, as modern lexicographers are fond of hollering into the void, is not a political tool. It is a pedagogical tool; it is a linguistic record; it is steadfastly, tirelessly, blandly objective. But we can’t blame people for thinking otherwise, because that’s not always been the case. Continue reading

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I Wrote A Book

About eight years ago, my husband and I redid the kitchen in our apartment. Our apartment is not the biggest, and our kitchen is similarly minuscule, and you’d think that this would make a renovation manageable but it did not. If anything, it just served to emphasize how much work needed to be done. Every nail in the floor that needed to be pulled; every warped layer of drywall to saw through; every floorboard that needed to be repaired was a gargantuan undertaking, because there was literally no room for it to be lost in. We spent Saturdays and late nights on our knees with nail-pulls, and then on ladders with sanders, and then on our knees again with sanders, then getting exuberant with sledgehammers. We became experts at microwave cooking; I had vivid, yearning dreams about washing dishes in a sink.

We finished and began moving back into the kitchen the dishes, the food, the microwave, the old coffeemaker which was on its last legs, the new coffee grinder because we killed the old one making deathwish-strength espresso to power through late nights. And once it was all put back together, we were so exhausted and sick of being in the kitchen that we ordered pizza and ate it on the couch. Then we did it again. We had a new kitchen and were absolutely done with kitchens.

But one morning, I stumbled into the kitchen to make my morning cup of deathwish and was literally stopped short, because for the first time in months, I really noticed how much we had done on the kitchen, and it was all great. It all struck me at once, and I wandered in a (very tight) circle, admiring drawer pulls, the counter, the double-sink, the sink sprayer. When my husband came in to get some coffee, he found his very happy and slightly deranged wife standing in the middle of the room, beaming. “I love this kitchen!” I chirped. “Look at it! Look at everything we did!”

Guys: look! Look at it! Look at everything I did:

I WROTE THIS BOOK AND YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY BUY IT, IT IS GREAT!

This is my book: now called Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, it’s available for (frickin’) preorder (YOU GUYS) at several different places, even! Order it from Penguin Random House here, or, if you’d prefer, get it at Amazon, B&N, IndieBound, or iBooksWord by Word will be released on March 14, 2017, and that is still the most surreal sentence I will ever write in my tiny, narrow life.

I’m sure you have questions. For instance, now that I am an authoress, will I abandon the blog and go hang out with Raymond Carver’s ghost instead? No. I find, after a long break, that I still have words and thoughts on words left over. You can expect me to blather in your general direction with more regularity.

What about book signings? Will I autograph copies? Where am I reading? Is there a launch party and will you be invited? IS YOUR NAME IN THE BOOK, OMG OMG OMG? Those are all excellent questions, but I am not going to answer them here on my blog. Let’s be honest: you come here for the witty commentary on what a gorgeous bastard English is, not for me to go over all Jonathan Franzen on you. So I have started up a newsletter, where you can get information about my book: where I’ll be reading from it, where I’ll be signing it, which bookstores I’ve left vandalized secretly autographed copies of that dumb book in, and all the public places you may accost me for a selfie or signed copy of the book. My newsletter will include all the best words, I guarantee it. Please sign up! Yes, even you, Kevin.

Thank you all for hanging in there through the radio silence. This is going to be fun.

 

 

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Filed under book

“It’s,” Complicated: National Grammar Day and Apostrophe Abuse

Yesterday was National (U.S.) Grammar Day, which is the high holy day for us word nerds. Everyone celebrates in their own way–I celebrate by using the singular “they” and ritually burning seven copies of Strunk & White–but one thing that is constant across all of nerddom is the worship of Almighty Grammar. Adherence to Grammar will save us: it will make us happy. It will get us the best job. It will increase our sexiness by 400%.

It’s a shame then that Grammar is so damned mercurial. A cursory look at the history of most usage issues tagged as “grammar” shows that “correct” hasn’t always been–and I’m not just referring to those fine-grain shibboleths of usage that no one can quite get right, like whether you should use “different from” or “different than.” Let’s keep things simple. Let’s talk about the apostrophe.

That hanging tittle is the source of much grammatical spleen, plenty of it vented in the dictionary’s general direction around National Grammar Day (though punctuation is officially outside our wheelhouse). My inbox is chock full of variations on “I hate people who can’t use apostrophes because it’s so simple,” and as proof of its simplicity, sometimes my correspondents even use the proper “it’s” in their complaint. (Sometimes.) But if it’s so simple, as they claim, then how do so many smart people get it so wrong?

The apostrophe first appeared in English sometime in the 16th century, possibly ganked into English printing from Italian or French conventions. Not much is written on the development of the apostrophe, but we know that when it first showed up in English print, it was used to signal that a letter (or several letters) had been omitted in a construction. “She’ll” is a contraction of “she will” or “she shall”; “’tis” is a contraction of “it is”; “‘zbud” and “‘sbodkins” are contractions of “God’s blood” and “God’s bodkins” and truly magnificent in the way that only 17th-century euphemisms can be.

This habit continued well into the 17th and 18th centuries, growing beyond its little garden plot. Apostrophes were sometimes used to clarify pronunciation for the reader, especially in poetry: “banish’d” was clearly meant to be spoken as two syllables to keep scansion tidy and look very Byronic, whereas “banished” could be three, particularly in some florid Drydenesque constructions. Daniel Defoe took this further: he used “cou’d” and “wou’d” in his writings to show that the “l” in “could” and “would” was silent, though I’d wager that most people who were reading Defoe likely knew about “could” and “would.”

That damn’d apostrophe was so handy that sometime around the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries, people began to use it to signal possession. It makes a great deal of sense: does “Drydens harrumphing” refer to the harrumphing of one John Dryden, or to a whole army of John Drydens making their displeasure known? We can make that clear with just one blob of well-placed ink! And so the apostrophe was liberally sprinkled among all our nouns and pronouns to mark possession.

Nouns and pronouns, mind. So while we have the now-familiar “Dryden’s harrumphing” and “dog’s breakfast,” we also ended up with “her’s,” “their’s,” “our’s,”  “your’s,” and–yes, gird thy loins–“it’s,” which were in use as possessive pronouns through the 17th and 18th centuries. Boo, you cry, stupid, but not at all. It’s very logical: if that apostrophe was going to mark possession, then it was going to mark possession goddamned everywhere.

As a possessive marker, the apostrophe is fairly straightforward unless the base word ends in “-s,” and then everything falls all to hell. Is it “Davy Jones’s locker,” or “Davy Jones’ locker?” Yes. Is it “Jesus’s wounds?” Good lord no, of course it is not, why would you even think that? It is “Odysseus’ journey” but “Zeus’s shenanigans.” Why? Heed my words, O nerd: where were you when I laid the foundations of the possessive?

We had punctuation mania: by the 19th century, we were using apostrophes to make single letters plural, as in “p’s and q’s.” There is no logical explanation for this, apart from the fact that “ps and qs” looks odd and might result in some hapless chump spitting all over himself trying to pronounce “qs” as if it were Arabic and not \KEWS\. The pluralizing apostrophe also shows up by the 20th century in numbers (“alternative banjo music of the 1890’s”) and when referring to a word as a word  (“too many ‘apostrophe’s’ in this blog post”), and then later in abbreviations (“RSVP’s”) and with symbols (“&’s”), because why the hell not? Never mind that the apostrophe initially was just intended as a stand-in for elision: we wrested it away from those Europeans with all their diacritic corsetry and let it breathe.

The result is that we have a handful of ways to use the apostrophe, none of which were ever consistently “correctly” used. “‘Til,” a contraction of “until,” has lost ground and the peeververein’s favor to “till” and “til.” At end of the 19th century, you still saw possessives used without the apostrophe–“a stones throw” still shows up in edited prose today. By the time that Robert Lowth was writing his grammar in the mid-1700s, he felt that “its” (no apostrophe) was the correct possessive of “it,” though he hewed to “her’s,” “their’s,” and “our’s.” And the apostrophized plural of letters has been inconsistent from the year dot: “bs” and “b’s” and “beez” and “bees” have all been used in print.

What this means for the modern apostrophizer, of course, is that instead of having one or two simple rules to govern apostrophe use, we now have a jam jar full of smudgy guidelines that don’t have any consistent historical application. Even the most consistent rule–the elision rule–gets fubar’d in real life. How long, O Lord, til you end our “ya’ll” sorrow? And that, remember, is the easy rule. What do you do if you are referring to the house that belongs to the married couple with the last name “Jones”? You practically need a fold-out flow chart to figure out whether “the Joneses house” gets an apostrophe and where.

And here’s the rub: the rules are continuing to change. We’re slowly losing those plural apostrophes in “the 1890s” and “RSVPs.” In Britain especially, the possessive apostrophe in some business names like “Harrod’s” and “Waterstone’s” has scarpered. These changes are themselves inconsistent. “RSVPs” but “OD’d”; “the 1890s” but “the ’90s.” But “RSVP’s” just looks right to me, even though I know that “RSVPs” is more common now and I am ostensibly in the know vis-a-vis apostrophes. The heart wants what it wants.

Considering all this, it’s not too surprising that the grocer’s apostrophe flourishes, that people still send out holidays cards signed “The Jones’s,” that even smart people confuse “it’s” and “its.” None of us–not a single one of us–has gotten the apostrophe right in every circumstance because “right” is a moving target, and that’s the thing that we lose sight of during National Grammar Day. I like grammar in all her forms (both linguistic and populist), but I will not hold her up as the eternal unchanging ideal to which all people’s intelligence and fitness must be compared.

I once dated a man who was smart, kind, witty, and incredibly good-looking, and we occasionally exchanged handwritten letters. A few months ago while cleaning out the basement, I came across his letters to me and read a few of them. They were intelligent, funny, throat-baringly honest–and dotted with a couple misused apostrophes. I received these letters during a time when I was an insufferable asshole-pedant, when I freely corrected wrong “who”s and offered unsolicited advice about the terminal preposition because it was proof I was smart. And yet I evidently never corrected this guy, though it would have been just like me to correct the punctuation of someone to whom I was pitching woo (cf. “asshole,” above). It’s almost as though all his other excellent qualities eclipsed his occasional issues with apostrophes.

Reader: I married him, bad apostrophes and all. Our letters are in storage together; I read a few of mine to him. Wrong “who”s and terminal prepositions all over the goddamned page. He doesn’t hold it against me.

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Filed under grammar, peeving and usage

Book Update: The Bowstring, Twanged

 

Stephen Hawking, in his book A Brief History of Time, lays out three different ways that humanity perceives time. The first is psychological–we perceive that time moves from past to future, because we remember the past but have no knowledge of the future. The second is thermodynamic (or entropic)–our perceived state of the the physical world is that things move from order to chaos, so that as time moves forward, entropy increases. The third is cosmological–time moves in a direction we’d call “forward” as the universe expands and “backward” as the universe contracts. Physicists generally call this flow “the arrow of time.”

The process of writing a book has been, for me, a long sit-down with the arrow of time wedged firmly between my shoulder blades. Continue reading

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Answers I Wish I Could Send: One Week’s Worth

At Merriam-Webster, we receive and respond to several hundred emails a week. While only a relative handful of them are editorial in nature, they are nonetheless a time- and sanity-suck for those who must answer them. Below is a small sample of the editorial email that came in during one workweek in August. Part blah-bitty-blah in a series, and extra-long for your erudition and delectation!

MONDAY

Name: sam
Email: [redacted]@gmail.com
Subject: FAULTY DEFINITION OF “Faith”

Question: you say -“Nothing is more important to her than her faith in GOD” as an example of a sentence with faith My Question is how can u define faith in god as contrary or in ignorance to the facts???

do u have faith in ur wife contrary to the evidence ????
No NOT AT ALL

u see that ur wife is not cheating on u
and on that basis of evidence only will u call her faithful to u. Wont U????
so why define faith as “contrary to the evidence, no proof” ???
I HOPE THIS IS NOT AN ATHEISTIC DICTIONARY!!! Continue reading

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Filed under correspondence