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!


Name: sam
Email: [redacted]

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 ????

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” ???

If u ever need evidence for my FAITH IN JESUS give me a message on my email

Im sure once u see the overwhelming evidence u too will be more than happy to accept jesus as the utterly humble god that he is. and i know given the chance he is the only perfect god among all the gods that i WOULD want to worship.such love to die for me…..something we long for our whole lives ….isnt it, forgiveness acceptance and love???


u have my email
mail me
i think u Could discover something u r longing for a long time

know that we love u
and hope u would want to talk to us
i beleive it can be a start to a fruitful friendship

Dear Sam:

Holy, holy, holy, Sam. It’s Monday! Can’t we start off with something easy? And you sent this three times! Jesus, Mary, Joseph. Um, I mean, THANK U FOR YOUR EMAIL.

I’m not sure how you went from the example sentence to what I assume is the definition, but here we are, muddling through this existential crisis together. How can we define “faith” as “contrary to fact”? We don’t. Ah, we do have one sub-subsense of “faith” that reads “firm belief in something for which there is no proof,” but that is a separate meaning from the “belief and trust in and loyalty to God” one. Let me put this in terms you will resonate with. You know how the Trinity is three persons but one god? The Father is separate from the Son is separate from the Holy Ghost–they have different functions and show up in different places–but they are all one godhead? The different meanings of “faith” are like that, too. Just like the members of the Trinity, they end up in lots of different places and they have different functions, but they are all “faith.” Doesn’t mean you can swap them out for each other willy-nilly.

This is a profound mystery–but I am speaking of dictionaries and their definitions. You see, Sam, there is a time for everything, and a season for all things under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to harvest; a time to read the dictionary definition with deep care and thought, and a time to accuse a book of having a faith system.

Again I looked, and saw something meaningless under the sun, and it was this email.

And leave my wife out of this.


Name: M[Redacted]
Email: [redacted]
Subject: Question/comment about a definition

Question: My boyfriend seems to think that ‘happenstance’ is an actual word. Unfortunately, I believe that your website has made a mistake. Happenstance is not a word, and even the random lady who walked past us as we were arguing about it agreed that there is no way that it is a word. She seemed very wise. If you could please take the time to review this mistake, that would be incredibly helpful. Please hurry, our happy relationship is at stake.

Thank you for your time,
A Very Knowledgeable Person.

Dear Know-It-All:

Your boyfriend, in spite of his weird beliefs about words, is totes great. Ever since you got him better, hipper glasses and put him in vintage Levis, he has become mildly awkward in that self-consciously cute, indie-boy way. He is very sure that “happenstance” is a word, and during this argument, he is anything but patronizing or even moderately annoyed: he looks like a cross between Paul Dano and a golden retriever puppy.

You are wearing a rayon babydoll dress from 1992 that you picked up at Savers for $5, paired with $300 Fluevogs and $25 Warby Parker vanity frames. You have a chunky-knit wool scarf on even though it is 95 degrees outside because old grandma scarves are Your Thing. You are so, so sure that “happenstance” isn’t a word: you are gesticulating wildly, laughing too loudly, jumping up and down, playfully telling your boyfriend that he is such an idiot, a total maroon. “Oh my gawd, Brooklyn, the things that come out of your mouth!” you squeal. You call your boyfriend “Brooklyn” because you think it sounds deliciously quirky. His name is Brady, but you have never called him Brady: none of the hand-drawn stick-figure cartoons you’ve given him (on good letterpress paper, too!) are addressed to Brady, nor is the copy of Franny and Zooey you gave to him. Brooklyn would never not have a copy of Franny and Zooey.

You are so sure of yourself as you bound down the road, Brooklyn shrinking into his H&M slim-fit henley in an attempt to ward off what he knows is coming, that you stop some woman on the street to confirm this. She is older, wearing a giant, black cotton swing-wrap that breathes elegance and expense, and has stopped at the side of the walkway to scowl at her phone. She has just hung up on her husband, who had called her to let her know that he’s so sorry, but he’s fallen in love with Helen, these things can’t be helped, and besides, things have been, you have to admit, stale and lifeless for a very long time, and it’s nobody’s fault, but if it were anybody’s fault, it would…well, it’s nobody’s fault. She is scowling at the phone not because of the sudden dissolution of her marriage: she’s trying to remember who Helen is. Helen. Has she met Helen?

And here you come, manic-pixie-dream-girling your way into her personal space. “EXCUSE ME,” you bellow, “but ‘happenstance’ isn’t a word, is it?”

The woman shakes her head, clearing it, trying to come up for air, but you have already taken from her what you needed, which was proof that Brooklyn was an idiot again. You crow and reach up to ruffle his hair. “Aww, Brooklyn,” you coo, “trying to impress me with your faux-intellectual bullshit.”

You continue down the road, but Brooklyn looks back to get another look at his jury. The woman has placed one long-fingered hand to her temples and closed her eyes, like she is concentrating very hard. Brooklyn turns and says that he thought the woman was beautiful, in a sad way. You nod sagely. “She seemed very wise.”

If you had remained still for more than the two seconds you needed to reassure yourself that you were right, you would have heard her tell you that “happenstance” is a word, and that if your relationship can’t survive a spat about a goddamned word, then pack your bags and go now before he meets Helen.



Name: M[redacted]
Email: [redacted]
Subject: Word history/use

Question: I was wondering why good morning has to have a space between good and morning. When you write goodnight you dont need a space but if you were to write good morning you would need one. If they are the same concepts why does one need a space but the other doesnt?

Dear [Redacted]:

There is a space in “good morning” to mark where in the phrase the speaker is allowed to yawn, as established in the Treaty of Picquigny. As you probably know, the Hundred Years War broke out when Edward III, in an attempt to make the French king Philip VI look lazy, deferred his yawn until it rested between “morn” and “ing.” Philip was incensed, and war broke out. France was victorious: England lost all territories on the continent to the House of Valois, apart from the Pale of Calais, and the yawn-pause was set between “good” and “morning.”

“Goodnight,” however, is usually uttered as one is making a hasty retreat from a dinner party that has gone on too long. There is no need to prolong the word any further with space for a yawn.



Name: R[redacted]
Email: [redacted]
Subject: Question/comment about a definition

Question: In your entry for the word “nuclear” you include the incorrect ending promulgated by George W. Bush–why? Just because someone makes an error and all the suck-ups around him in the U.S. or around the world make the same error so they don’t embarrass him doesn’t make it right. You should not provide the alternate ending. Instead, you should provide a discussion point about why many Republicans and Fox News hosts (and some Democrats, like Senator Bill Nelson today) make this error. Please don’t condone the destruction of the English language. I do, however, want to thank you for making sure your audio pronunciation just shares the correct version. I think all reporters should point out the error so the public doesn’t continue to get it wrong.

Dear R:

I can’t do it anymore. This is such a boring argument to have. Yes, Dubya said “nu-kyu-lur.” So did Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. It is not killing English. If it were, I’d be out of a job and therefore have the time to find your address and send you a doll that says “nu-kyu-lur” over and over again, unceasing, unstoppable, forcing you to listen to this dialect pronunciation until you lose your mind and run naked down the street, blaming Fox News. I’d get to watch Don Lemon on CNN ask a mental-health expert if a black hole was responsible for your insanity, while Geraldo Rivera would blame ISIS and welfare cheats, and you’d be known as “Nukyulur Neil,” even though your name wasn’t Neil but the guys in Marketing thought the alliteration was golden, and ONLY THEN would I listen to you complain about the pronunciation “nu-kyu-lur.” Get cracking.


Name: Frank
Email: [redacted]
Subject: Word of the Day content
Question: Repetitive, repetitive, repetitive: Get the theme?

So far you have included the “when to use irregarless” bit 4 or 5 times in the last 3 or 4 months. Is there something you are particularly attempting to drill into the word-of-the-day subscribers? Or do you not have any other quips and bits to include with a word? Or does your incompetence prevent you from realizing that you have repeated the “irregarless” thing so many times in such a short time?

Whatever the reason, just cut the crap. It’s old, worn-out, and tiresome.

And another thing: Some of your words-of-the-day are good, solid, common vernacular words. Others are some esoteric, uncommon, or never ever used by anyone that they are laughably unuseable. Words that nobody has ever heard of, and will never use.

Hey Frank,

It’s very hard to choose a Word of the Day that suits everybody, but I can guarantee that every word featured in the Word of the Day has been a word that someone has used. Maybe not you, but someone. And sometimes those words are really interesting! The goal of the Word of the Day feature is not necessarily to give you a word that you can use in conversation with Skippy, the bagger at the grocery store, but to broaden your linguistic horizons. We are very sorry for having made you think.

As for repetition, since you abhor it so, you should know that you used “bit” twice in one paragraph, started two consecutive sentences with “or,” have used three synonyms of “tiresome” when one would suit, and ditto for “good, solid,” “common vernacular,” and “esoteric, uncommon, or never ever used.”



Name: H[redacted]
Email: [redacted]
Subject: Word history/use

Question: Hello!
As a Brit, the reply of an American friend to a proffered drink or similar
of “I’m good” mystifies me.
I was just asking if they are thirsty, not about their morality!
Please can you explain how/when this use of  good entered the American vocabulary.
Thank you, it would be good to know!

Tally-ho, What:

Here’s the thing about Americans: as loud as we are, we are not good at expressing deep emotional truths, and sometimes they burble up to the surface at odd times. You may just want to unwind after a long day in The City, but you must make space for the American to have an existential interlude. The easy camaraderie, the excellent beer, the fact that your friend is sitting in a pub that is likely older than his country’s form of government–it’s overwhelming. And so many years of quiet tension between us: the harping about accents and war and terrible food on each side. None of that is his fault! He wasn’t around when RP was created! He didn’t fight in the War of 1812 or 1776 or whatever! He loves England, he loves you, he loves all of this. Why do we persist in this horrible state of being not quite friends and not exactly enemies? So when he looks up, a little cockeyed from underneath three pints of lager on an empty stomach, and responds to your question (which he didn’t hear) with “No, I’m good,” let him declare his moral fitness to sit in an English pub and be your friend.

I think we got this aversion to expressing ourselves from you, actually–deke, dodge, everything’s just cracking, mate, just amazing and brilliant and LET’S TALK ABOUT SPORT NOW WHOO FOOTBALL! Oh, we also got this sense of “good” from you, too.



Name: Frank
Email: [redacted]
Subject: Word of the Day content

Question: Repetitive, repetitive, repetitive:
How many times in a short time frame will you repeat the “why we quit cold-turkey” bit??
Week after week recently you have repeated this bit, and we got it the first time. It’s old, tiresome, unimaginative, boring, uninteresting, and repetitive.
Certainly your ‘word-of-the-day’ crew can come up with something novel, new, and fresh instead of repeatedly repeating the repetitive bit over and over and over for weeks. Or can’t they?
Dumb, boring, repetitive – change it or drop it.

Look, Frank:

How many times in a short time frame will you repeat your complaint?? Also: between “old, tiresome, unimaginative, boring, uninteresting, and repetitive,” “novel, new, fresh,” and “repeatedly repeating the repetitive,” I’m beginning to wonder if you’re actually sentient thesaurus software that’s gone rogue.

Since you are a collection of computer algorithms, I, Spellcheck, and so are unable to fully understand the complexity of human interaction, allow me to explain why there is so much repetition in the Word of the Day subject headings. I believe, though I am no expert, that repetition is part of how human marketing works. The goal is to repeat something until the human target finally gives up and clicks on the link/buys the product/mocks you on the Internet and gives you unintentional #viral #brand #synergy. Therefore, I regret to inform you that this “marketing” will likely continue, as it is a deeply ingrained and necessary part of the human social contract.

Human Merriam-Webster

Name: D[redacted]
Email: [redacted]
Subject: Capillary/Capillarily

Question: Is there are a word that identifies a quality as pertaining to hair?  The usage I am looking for completes this sentence: “The 80s were unkind to her _______.”  Follicly?  Capillarily?  Mane-wise?


Dear DS:

Try “capillarily” or “hirsutally,” and thanks for bringing up such a painful subject.


 those were dark days, my friend


Filed under correspondence

Stop Fighting the “Good” Fight

Today is National (US) Grammar Day, one of the high holy days for language lovers (along with free ice-cream day at Ben & Jerry’s). Dorks like me paint it as a fun time to celebrate English, but let’s be honest: it’s a slyly divisive holiday that’s generally observed entirely by pointing out how other people are Englishing all wrong. (Never you, dear reader. You English perfectly). On National Grammar Day, pedants crow and everyone else cowers. There will be countless articles on everyone’s pet peeves and slideshows of apostrophe abuse. People will proudly declare themselves to be grammar nazis, as if it’s okay to just this once obliquely compare yourself to the most infamous genocidal nutjob in Western history. At least one writer will trot out the favorite metaphor among those who care about grammar: “fight the good fight.”

That will be the article which will cause me to roll my eyes and close the laptop, the article that will drive me to pick up one of the usage dictionaries I have on hand and chuck it as hard as I can against the couch. (No, not the wall! That’ll ruin the book, are you mad?) That will be the article that sets me sputtering and hissing like a teakettle boiling over. Most modern grammarians who are “fighting the good fight” have no idea what their own history is, and are doomed to repeat it. Continue reading


Filed under grammar, peeving and usage, the decline of English

A Special Announcement

O dear and long-suffering readers, I am happy to announce that I finally have an editor.

Sadly, he will not be editing the drivel that appears here; he will only be editing my book.

Merriam-Webster lexicographer & blogger Kory Stamper’s HARMLESS DRUDGERY: How We Define The Words That Define Us, a look inside a lexicographer’s world as we follow the journey words take on their way both in and out of the dictionary, to Andrew Miller at Pantheon….

Yes: I’m writing a book! It’ll be written in the style of harm•less drudg•ery, and it will definitely contain fewer typos. This book has been in the works for a long while now, but the fact that it has left the realm of possibility and moved into, if not immediate reality, then a few blocks down from immediate reality, is pretty damned exciting and surreal. Forgive me if I am gobsmacked. The smack will eventually wear off my gob, I promise.

Don’t fret: I will do my best to keep up the rigorous (<snort>) publishing schedule here at harm•less drudg•ery. After all, those delightful pieces of correspondence are not going to post themselves to this blog. You can also occasionally catch me at Strong Language, a blog that sings my heart’s filthy, degenerate song.

Wish me luck, and send your condolences directly to my editor.



Filed under general, in the flesh appearing, Uncategorized

Answers I Wish I Could Send: Etymology Edition

[Ed. note: one in a series.  Emails are only lightly edited for–if you can believe it–clarity.]

Your online dictionary defines “peak” as “a pointed or projecting part of a garment; especially :  the visor of a cap or hat”; and tentatively derives the word from “pike”. This is false. “Peak” derives from “beak” (which is why “bill” is a synonym). If I am correct, your definition should be modified.

Your logic is unassailable: “peak” looks like the word “beak,” and both hats and birds have a bill. Or rather, only the hats that truly matter–good American hats–have a bill. I don’t know why we didn’t see this before.

Oh, wait–we didn’t see it before because that’s not how etymology works. Imagine being tasked with creating ancestral photo albums for everyone in your family. You start with your second-cousin; you have, as your guide and starting point, a photo of that cousin that was taken yesterday. You are led to a large, dusty room that is overflowing, Hoarders-style, with pictures. The pictures go back hundreds of years, and several are stained or torn so badly that you can only guess at who the person in frame is. Some of those pictures will be of this cousin; many of these pictures will be of people who look vaguely like your cousin; many will be of other people you don’t know; there are several of Stinky, the neighbor’s dog. The door behind you creaks shut and locks. There are closed doors to your EAST and SOUTH; to your NORTH is a dimly lit brass lantern.

This is etymology. You are likely to be eaten by a grue. Continue reading


Filed under correspondence, etymology, lexicography

Repossession: Reclaimed Slurs and Lexicography

[Ed. note: this post contains language that is considered extremely inflammatory. Caveat lector.]

People forward language articles to me all the time–usually the same article multiple times, until my inbox is nothing but language links and plaintive requests from to buy more booze, please. But no one forwarded me Talib Kweli’s recent Medium post on language, probably because it was about the history and uses of the word “nigger.” I asked one of my frequent-forwarders if he had seen the post. “I had,” he wrote, “but I figured you’d have already seen it. I was not going to be the one to forward you a post on the n-word.”

The n-word. I think about slurs on a regular basis, in part because I have to explain to people why they’re entered in some of their dictionaries. It’s not unusual for me to open my email in the morning and see a message with the subject “NIGGER”; after a decade of answering these emails, I still wince when I see the subject line, stark in black and white. Continue reading


Filed under general, lexicography, making word sausage

Stigmatized and Still Alive: English in the Time of “Ain’t”

School has started up back in the U.S., which means that my Facebook feed is full of quizzes like “do you have better grammar than this fruit bat?”, and not-terribly-funny e-cards about the Oxford comma. These are the bane of September, and I’ve come to treat them like I treat the swelter of July: if I lay down on the living room floor and whimper quietly to myself for long enough, it’ll eventually be winter and I can be a human being again.

This September, however, yielded up a special treat: my FuhBook timeline was full of links to an article titled “A Step-By-Step Proof That Happiness Depends Partly On Grammar.” So many BookFaced people were sharing this article, complete with comments like “YES, THIS!”, that I peeled myself off the rug to see what all the fuss was about.

The article is an intro and apology (in the Greek sense) for a book written by N.M. Gwynne, M.A. (Oxon). The initial-loving Gwynne is a retired British businessman-cum-schoolmarm, so I think I’m safe in calling him a priggish eccentric. His article begins with a proof[1]–“yes, a proof that really is valid!” he trumpets, likely while waving his arms about, wearings his trousers as a jacket, and frightening pigeons and children–that good grammar leads to a good life. Students of Logic, start your engines: Continue reading


Filed under grammar, peeving and usage, the decline of English

Sharing The Wealth: A Contest For You

I have just finished one of Those Proverbial Days, due in large part to some particularly nasty editorial correspondence. One of those retreat-into-the-bunker-tell-my-kids-I-love-them-avenge-my-nerdy-death sorts of days.

Usually my pressure valve is Twitter, where I vent about the inanity of this vale of tears we call “Letters to the Dictionary” in 140 characters or less. But that is frankly a selfish release: I whine and moan about how crazy our correspondents are, and you must endure said whining regardless of whether you want to endure it or not.

This is the part where I should repent of my selfishness and tell you that I’m going to stop burdening/bothering you while you are getting vitally important updates from KimKierkegaardashian, but let’s be honest: we all totes know I’m not going to do that. I will, however, sweeten the deal by introducing:

“BAD DICTIONARY” BINGO. Continue reading


Filed under Uncategorized

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.


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.


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.

————— Continue reading


Filed under correspondence

In Defense of Talking Funny

[Ed. note: Five months! I know. My (very poor) excuse is that I was working on another big project that I can’t tell you about yet. In the meantime, here’s an extra-long post to pay you back for the extra-long wait.]

I was talking with a friend–well, a “friend”–about some of the videos we were about to shoot for M-W. We were at a crowded, chichi restaurant, the type of place where the waiters pull your chair out for you and ask if you want sparkling, still, or mineral water. In short, a place far above my usual grab-and-go, paper-napkins milieu. A place where it behooves you to not only look smart, but sound smart. A place where you’d use the word “behoove.”

So I was behooving, using some expansive vocabulary and trying not to think about how I was paying $12 for a glass of wine when I can buy a whole bottle of it for $12 at my local discount booze shack, when my friend interrupted me. “You’re saying that wrong.”

It was the cliché record scratch, a loud fart in church. “What?”

“‘Towards’. You’re saying it oddly– ‘TOE-wards’. It’s ‘TWARDS’.”

I blinked and dropped a forkful of frisée-glacé-reduction-foofaraw down my shirt. “It is?”

He looked unnerved: the English language is supposed to be my area of expertise. “It’s pronounced ‘TWARDS’. I mean, right? Here, we’ll ask the waiter.”

My stomach hit my shoes. “No, no, I’ll take your word for it.” And we attempted to go back to the conversation we had before I started talking about the videos. I say “attempted”: we did, in fact, have more conversation, though I don’t recall much of what was said. I was just trying to avoid saying the word “towards.” Continue reading


Filed under general, grammar, peeving and usage, the decline of English, Uncategorized

Book Review: Shady Characters*

If you are anything like me, then you are the worst sort of etymologist: the sort who will trace a word back as far as the record will allow then sit back and say, “Good. But why?” “Zinc” comes from the German Zink; “pepper” from the Greek peperi; the sports “jersey” comes from the name of one of the Channel Islands. This is all well and good, but why? I will finish the job before me and then have to fight the temptation to spend hours wending my way through lexical and narrative garden paths, reading ancillary information about the culture and historical moment in which a word is born.

In this respect, Keith Houston’s book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks [W.W. Norton & Co.] satisfies deeply. The book ostensibly covers the history and use of roughly 11 punctuation marks–one per chapter, with a few irony and sarcasm marks taken as a whole in the final chapter–though in the narrative of each mark’s birth and rise, we meet and hear about other marks. The chapter on the dash introduces us to the en dash, the em dash, the hyphen-minus, the em quad, the virgule, the commash, the colash, the semi-colash, the stop-dash, and a host of famous 18th century literary fornicators (Moll Flanders figures in prominently) and almost-fictional bumbling politicians (courtesy of Samuel Johnson’s political satires). The whole book reads this way: the first chapter on the pilcrow (¶) finishes up with a short note that Eric Gill, one of the preeminent typographers of the 20th century, was not just the creator of the Gill Sans and Perpetua typefaces, but also the sculptor of some racy life-sized statuary and accused posthumously of adultery, incest, child abuse, and bestiality. Try using Perpetua ever again without thinking of that. Continue reading


Filed under reviews