Editorial Correspondence: More Answers I Cannot Send

Dear Sir:

Thank you for your comments on the etymology of “Lego.” Sadly, we cannot say whether “Lego” stems from the Latin legere, nor whether, in naming their plastic blocks, the makers of Lego intended to call to mind Augustine of Hippo’s conversion to Christianity, in which he hears a child’s voice calling “tolle, lege.” We are merely dictionary publishers–the very antithesis of beloved toymakers. I would, however, wager that Lego is not intended to call to mind St. Augustine, particularly since Lego is a Danish company, and you no doubt think Europeans are all godless nihilists (though you can’t beat their godless, nihilistic public transportation).


Dear Ma’am:

We are sorry that you are having trouble accessing the Internet, but I doubt it is because our website killed the Internet. The Internet, as you may know, is a series of tubes that are cats all the way down. Cats are remarkably sturdy creatures with nine lives each. Though math is not my strong suit, a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that, assuming each tube is stuffed with a thousand cats and there are a zillion Internet tubes, the Internet will never die. It is more likely that the Internet took offense at your desktop background of a cat hanging from a tree branch by its claws and has banned you. To regain Internet access, please forward this email to your ISP and make a donation to your local SPCA in honor of the tube cats.


Dear Sir:

There are states in the US I’m not particularly fond of either, but that does not mean we will remove their names from the dictionary or, indeed, blot those states out of existence. I am sorry to disappoint.


Dear Madam:

Thanks for your email about “sofa,” “davenport,” “couch,” “loveseat,” and “recliner.” We do not order these words according to the “understood hierarchy” of living-room furniture because we are more den people, if you know what I mean.


Dear Sir:

Your response to Beleaguered Colleague was forwarded to me. I must confess I am quite overwhelmed at the sheer volume and variety of words your response contains. You must imagine that your response (touching on civil rights, the song “Happy Birthday,” the use of language specifically by humans, and legitimate rape) is so impressive that we will immediately acquiesce to your wishes to write a custom dictionary made entirely of your opinions about words. And you are right: we’re giving up lexicography. Merriam-Webster is yours to do with as you please! Thank you for taking over. Please note that my salary, in spite of what the HR records say, is $400,000 a year and I get six months of vacation. Also, who can I complain to about a hostile work environment? My new boss keeps going on and on about “legitimate rape” and it concerns me.


Dear Ma’am:

We are sorry that the state motto of Maryland offends you. We’ll get right on that. What do you think of “Condita est a piratis”?


Dear Sir:

Thank you for writing to ask why “litre” and “fibre” are “misspelt.”  Truly, this is the question of our age. Why is “misspelled” misspelt? Is spelling merely a fascist construct, designed to breed jingoism and linguistic isolationism? Or perhaps it’s a remnant of the bourgeois “education” of the oppressed proletariat classes–after all, only the bourgeois can properly spell “bourgeois.”

I propose this: spell words however you would like to spell them, and when people complain that they are misspelt, engineer a coup and overthrow them.


Dear Ma’am:

Thanks for your comments on the terminal preposition rule. You assert that we cannot know The Truth about it, as we are not John Dryden and cannot possibly know what he was thinking. You are correct: we are absolutely not John Dryden, and are daily grateful for it. You also posit that, if the terminal preposition rule is really a myth, then perhaps English itself is a myth as well. I am afraid you have discovered the truth: English is a myth. We are all actually Germans trying our best to speak Latin. I believe the Internet will confirm this.


Dear Sir:

This may be hard to believe, but the adjective “wily” predates Wile E. Coyote by about 600 years. In related news, roadrunners don’t actually say “meep meep,” and if you fall off a cliff and are crushed by a safe, you get more than a comically tall lump on your head. I hope this information is helpful.


Dear Ma’am:

Thanks for writing and sharing with us what made you want to look up the word “tongue.” I really didn’t need (or want) to know all that, though. I hardly know you.


Dear Sir:

I’m sorry that our correspondence has been so unsatisfying to you. It has personally been the highlight of my lexicographical career. I’m so distraught over the idea that we will no longer be corresponding that I may well quit lexicography altogether and go back to my original plan to be a doctor. Perhaps the rigors of med school will distract me from my broken heart.

I will fondly remember our first correspondence, in which you called me “a machine-generated response.” It cut to the heart of me–I was losing touch with my humanity, it was true. How well you knew me, even from the outset! I resolved to spend more time outside and away from my computer. Your follow-ups were just as personal, just as convicting. “Yes,” I cried upon reading your next, “I am lazy and shiftless!” “Absolutely!” I agreed, “I am an idiot! Thank god someone has finally seen through me!” The truth will set you free, they say, and your emails threw off my chains and let me soar wobblingly (and no doubt with terrible form) into the sun.

I will miss your unfounded indignation, your terrible spelling, and your superior knowledge of everything. I would say I don’t know how I’ll get along without you, but you’ve anticipated me even there: a quick glance at my inbox shows that you’ve sent some of your protégés to keep me company. Bless you, Sir.



Filed under correspondence, the decline of English

45 responses to “Editorial Correspondence: More Answers I Cannot Send

  1. Kari M.

    Ahhh, those poor tube cats. No wonder it feels as if the Internet rules us!

  2. Bryan

    So great! I could easily read a whole book of these (hint, hint).

  3. I almost never type this out loud because I find it embarrassing and, more importantly, it rarely applies, but… O… MG,
    I just LOL!’deded!

    Meep-meep on meepin’ on!

  4. These responses make me regret that the few times I’ve written to Merriam-Webster, it was about mundane things like thumb indexes, and I received mundane (but helpful) replies. Maybe next time I’ll try to be a little more creative.

  5. Crystal

    These are the kind of responses I wish I could give. Thanks for posting these!

    Incidentally, the word ‘Lego’ comes from the Danish ‘leg gode’, which means ‘play good’.

  6. HILARIOUS! I read these to my husband and we both laughed. We did not meep, however.

  7. I’d love to read some of the letters that inspired these imaginary responses, unless it was my job and then I’d probably hate it.

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  9. I had to look up the state motto of Maryland. I think I prefer “founded by pirates.” Yeesh!

  10. The search for Maryland’s motto led me to State Symbols USA, and I found that my state does not have a striking motto. Kory, could you invent a motto for Illinois? Our governors have a hard time avoiding prison. I know you could create a motto that would give them moral direction.

  11. trench

    Lego (from OED) Etymology: < Danish Lego, a respelling of leg godt ‘play well’, < lege to play

  12. Alberta Kaminsky

    “we are more den people”… Brilliant! I wish I could keep a cool head when faced with idiocy; it tends to drive me into fits.

  13. Stupendous. And -this- is almost best of all: “Tagged as blowhards, Bugs Bunny, cats all the way down, communism, furniture hierarchy, internet, jerks, lego, maryland, pirates, the myth of English, the worst states, TMI”. HAH!

  14. Fabulous letters. I’m new to your blog and I’ve now added you to my reader. on the strength of this post. No pressure 😉

  15. Mandy Macdonald

    Just a general thank-you for making an ordinary editorial day extremely funny.

  16. “Is spelling merely a fascist construct, designed to breed jingoism and linguistic isolationism? Or perhaps it’s a remnant of the bourgeois ‘education’ of the oppressed proletariat classes–after all, only the bourgeois can properly spell ‘bourgeois.'”
    Damn! You are both Wile E. AND meepin’ brilliant.

  17. Oh please do! I’m a bit late onto this one but a book would high comedy!

  18. I’d love to read the letters you answered here 🙂 A few years ago I handled incoming mail, and every now and then there would be a jewel that could have done with a reply like one of these here…

  19. How close have to come to “accidently” sending the above responses?

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  21. Was “convicting” (a) intended, (b) a simple typo for “convincing”, or (c) deep irony from beyond the dawn of time?

  22. I have no idea why I find “We are all actually Germans trying our best to speak Latin,” so amazingly hysterical, but I laughed until I stopped.

  23. I can’t make it through your blog without laughing hysterically. The origin of said word in itself if entertaining when used in this context. Still, I blame you for my hiccups.

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  26. Reblogged this on Huw Thomas and commented:
    Wonderfully insane sanity. Read, chortle and snigger.
    I particularly love the conclusion to the one about words that are misspelt…

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  28. As someone who has been waging education against unwilling teens for a little while now, I find that “We are all actually Germans trying our best to speak Latin” clears up everything for me and my students.

  29. Can anyone shed any light on a strange cultural diaspora. We are well aware of the ‘humor/humour’, ‘aluminium/aluminum’, ‘sulfur/sulphur’ etc schism that now exists between the predominant forms of English, but does anyone know if and when there was some kind of pronouncement from either country, or has it just grown up in a custom and practice fashion (though I probably mean practise!)
    The reason I ask is that in doing some British Library research I discovered that many 19th century English newspapers right up until the 1870s at least confidently and continuously use what nowadays Britsnobs would consider to be crass Americanisms. Was it one of those cul de sac movements (like the now deceased fashion for the internationalist language Esperanto) that we should all coalesce around the simpler, more logical US orthography. And was it the reactionaries in Britain’s university senior common rooms that reverted to throwing in extra letters again?

  30. Ian Whalley

    I like Kory Stamper a lot. I am an Englishman living in Germany. My interest in real English comes from my (very good) basic education in primary school.
    Since living in Germany and living two languages, you appreciate both of them. My grammar is probably not in your league Kory, but you do inspire me.

    Thank you.
    Ian Whalley

  31. Pingback: Answers I Wish I Could Send: One Week’s Worth | harm·less drudg·ery

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