Category Archives: general

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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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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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.

 

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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 Wine.com 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

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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

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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

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Alphabet Soup: TESOL and WMD Edition

Howdy from the international TESOL convention in Dallas, TX, where I am womanning the Merriam-Webster booth, giving a lecture about adverbs, and eating hamburgers as big as my head while the waiter and I discuss mohawk care. If you’re attending TESOL, come by the M-W booth and attempt to engage me in conversation!

 

For those of you who aren’t at TESOL this year, you may want to head over to the Guardian and read the story I’ve written for them on the words of the Iraq war. It is shorter and more informative than the usual drivel that appears here!

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A Plea for Sanity this National (US) Grammar Day

I love National Grammar Day. I also hate National Grammar Day. That may be surprising–after all, I’m a journeyman grammarian. I make my bread deciding whether a word is an attributive noun or adjective, parsing adverbial uses over conjunctive uses, writing those delightfully boring usage notes in your dictionary.

I love National Grammar Day for all the reasons you’d expect a massive nerd like me to love it: a chance to revel in and highlight the most-dear idiosyncrasies of my language and our feeble attempts to explain it. All you need to do is read through all the Grammar Day haiku that have been written, each falling like a cherry blossom in late Spring, to get in the spirit.

But I also hate National Grammar Day, because it ends up being less a celebration of the weirdness of English and more an annual conclave of the peeververein (as gentleman-copyeditor John E. McIntyre so eloquently calls them). I have a friend–well, a “friend”–who, every March 4th, marches forth into a variety of local stores with a black marker and corrects the signage in the name of “good grammar.” Grocer’s apostrophes are scribbled out, misspellings fixed, and good Lord the corybantic orgy of less/fewer corrections. This friend also printed up a bunch of stickers one year that read, “FIXED THAT FOR YOU. HAPPY NATIONAL GRAMMAR DAY.”

When he was finished telling me about how he observes National Grammar Day, he waited for me to break into a big smile and congratulate him. So when I didn’t–when, instead, my face compressed itself ever so slightly into a look of utter distaste–he was very confused. “Seriously,” he said, “don’t tell me that’s not awesome.”

Reader: that is not awesome. Continue reading

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