Category Archives: correspondence

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.


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.



Filed under correspondence, general

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” ???


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

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

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

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

A Compromise: How To Be A Reasonable Prescriptivist

Dear Language Peever:

Welcome to harm•less drudg•ery! You are here because you googled something like “literally killed English” or “different than is wrong” or “irregardless not a word.” Allow me to introduce myself: I’m that lady from the dictionary that made that stupid video about “irregardless.” Behold: I am a dread descriptivist.

Before you stomp off in a fit of pique, hear me out (if only because I used the right “pique”). Many people assume you and I are on different sides of the Great Grammar Debate–in fact, you probably assume this–but we have much in common. We are both carbon-based life forms with an Internet connection, and we both care deeply about language. And I know that you, a would-be prescriptivist, are sick of defending proper English to the hoi polloi and us hippie-dippy no-rulez descriptivists. I know this because this hippie-dippy descriptivist is pretty damn tired of having this conversation with you, too.

So in a spirit of bonhomie, I’m reaching across the aisle: I’m going to give you tools to be an informed prescriptivist and then let you go on your merry, doomsaying way, never to tell you to lighten the hell up again. Here, for your erudition, are the Six Steps to Becoming a Reasonable Prescriptivist. Continue reading


Filed under peeving and usage, the decline of English

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.

Continue reading


Filed under correspondence, the decline of English

Tainted “Love”: Correspondence from the Heart

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


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


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


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

                          Continue reading


Filed under correspondence, general