Category Archives: general

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.

When Noah Webster set out to write his 1828 magnum opus, it wasn’t because there wasn’t an adequate dictionary on the market. There were several, actually: Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, Bailey’s A Universal Etymological English Dictionary, Perry’s Royal  Standard English Dictionary. There were even dictionaries and glossaries compiled by Americans— the 1798 A School Dictionary by the aptly named Samuel Johnson Jr., who was no relation to the O.G. Drudge in London but was the first American lexicographer, and the 1816 A Vocabulary: Or, Collection of Words and Phrases, which Have Been Supposed to be Peculiar to the United States of America, by John Pickering, whose work focused entirely on Americanisms. No: for Webster, an American dictionary was integral to American identity and American politics. “Customs, habits, and language, as well as government, should be national,” he wrote. “America should have her own distinct from all the world. Such is the policy of other nations, and such must be our policy before the States can be either independent or respectable.”

Noah definitely indulged in a little patriotic propaganda. In his 1806 Compendious Dictionary, the trial run for the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, he defines “Americanism” as “love of America and preference of her interest,” which draws some local ire:

Americanism_is described thus: “Americanism, n. love of American and preference of her interest,” but it usually means an expression peculiar to our side of the Atlantick, not admitted in elegant English; and the alteration by Mr. Webster is preposterous. He says in his letter that he has been censured for introducing Americanism into his work, and proceeds to justify his conduct. But he surely means to speak as a philologist, and not a politician. (The Star (North Carolina), July 5, 1810)

A quick perusal of the evidence shows that though there is some use of “Americanism” to refer to something akin to patriotism, the word is most often used to refer to a word or saying “peculiar to our side of the Atlantick.” Was he reproved? Perhaps only moderately: the 1828 definition for “Americanism” is “the love which American citizens have to their own country, or the preference of its interests. Analogically, an American idiom.” For Webster, the patriotic (and limited) meaning of “Americanism” was far more important than the more common lexical use. It was a part of American identity, and what better way to promote it than through the American Dictionary of the English Language?

The goal of helping shape American culture led Noah to do some things that modern lexicographers would cringe at: he got his friends and man-crushes in politics to promote his dictionary as the American dictionary—national identity! USA! USA! This was not greeted with unanimous support:

We find in the Washington Telegraph, a certificate of more than one hundred members of Congress to the merits of Webster’s Dictionary, recommending it as a work proper to be consulted as a standard of the language. … Without meaning any disrespect to the gentlemen who have subscribed this certificate, we must say that we do not think it will do the Dictionary any good. We suffer members of Congress to make our laws, but not to make our language. (The Evening Post (New York), April 12, 1831)

Gee, it’s almost like the American people had just declared their independence from a distant and elitist government and didn’t want to be told what to think!

But this state of affairs set the tone for the rest of American lexicographical history. In the attempt to sell dictionaries, Webster and then the Merriam brothers appealed to the ruling elite–including as many politicians as they could muster–to endorse their book, and to some, the dictionary became inextricably linked to politics. Even as the defining itself moved to a staff model, which helps insure against one person’s personal biases and quirks overruling actual usage, and the prefaces of newer Webster’s Dictionaries were filled with lists of sources from which evidence for definitions was pulled, the charges of politicking flew. “RADICALS TAMPERING WITH THE SCHOOL BOOKS,” one 1866 headline trumps, continuing, “Partisan Definitions in the New Editions of Webster’s Dictionary.” An 1870 advertorial in a different paper for competitor Joseph Worcester’s dictionaries (the last of which had come out ten years prior) notes that Worcester is preferred over Webster in part because

[Webster’s] definitions of political words and terms are frequently sectional and unjust, and convey to the reader a wholly wrong idea. We pointed out the other day the changes made in Webster in the definition of such words as constitution, compact, nation, congress, and republic. All these words have been defined by the present editor of Webster’s Dictionary so as to furnish arguments against the democratic view of our institutions, and against the views of Dr. Noah Webster himself, whose definitions were accepted as correct. [Ed. note: hahaha, sure, okay.]

The present editor was not, as this note would suggest, a rabid anarchist. He was, it should be noted, just trying to do his goddamned job.

Even modern attempts to sway people away from this notion that the dictionary is political have failed. In one of the most widely-read and scathing critiques of the 1961 Webster’s Third, Jacques Barzun calls the book “the longest political pamphlet ever put together by a party.” This in spite of the fact that one of the deepest yet subtlest changes made to the Third by Gove, its editor in chief, was the removal of editorialization and bias in definitions, labels, verbal illustrations, and pretty much everything else he could get his hands on.

In one of his dissertations on language, Noah Webster wrote, “Small causes, such as a nick-name, or a vulgar tone in speaking, have actually created a dissocial spirit among the inhabitants of the different states, which is often discoverable in private business and public deliberations. Our political harmony is therefore concerned in a uniformity of language.” Anyone who has lived through this election feels that in their deep waters: words like “deplorable” and “divisive” have become overnight dog whistles; you know instantly where a person falls on the political spectrum depending on whether they call it the “Democratic party” or the “Democrat party”; who would have thought that “pussy” would have been one of the biggest news stories of a presidential election?; “bigly” has, out of nowhere, become the shibboleth by which we cull out supporters of the opposition (on both sides, on either side, on every side). The election is being played out in all sorts of odd places, letter by letter, morpheme by morpheme.

But there is a weird comfort in knowing that language has always been politicized, and yet here we are: e pluribus unum-ing our way into 2017. I walked to my polling place this morning past a house flying several Trump banners, just around the corner from  another house with a “Hillary: Because Sane People Live Here” yard sign. I walked past about a dozen people who all had “I VOTED TODAY” stickers on; I knew some of them might yell nasty things at me for supporting my candidate (whichever one I supported). But every person who passed me looked me in the eye, and smiled, and said “hello” or “good morning,” and y’all, I live in New Jersey where looking a person in the eye and saying “hello” to them might get you cold-cocked right in the kisser. There will be a shit-ton of whining and anger and pain and whatever tomorrow when we wake up to a new president (whichever one). But for one small moment today, we were all on the same page: we were all voters.

I said in a recent Washington Post article that one of the great things about reporting lookups was that you find not only that words matter, but that the people behind those words matter more. It’s the one lesson from this election that might actually be worth putting on a sticker or baseball hat.

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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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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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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

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The Voice of Authority: Morality and Dictionaries

Last Thursday was a rare treat in our house: one of those nights where the homework was done early, the dinner was cooked by someone else, and snow was in the forecast. The evening stretched out, molasses-lazy. My eldest daughter sauntered into the kitchen where I was spending some meditative time with the pots and a scrub brush.

“So,” she began lightly, “I wanted to talk to you about your pottymouth.”

I hummed. She does not approve of my penchant for cussing.

“When I came into your office today, you said the s-word. Cursing is evidence of a lack of creativity.” It is always a delight to hear your feeble parenting parroted back at you.

“A guy said something stupid on the radio this morning and then defended it by misquoting the dictionary. I was just frustrated, that’s all.”

She whisked a dishtowel off the shelf and began drying pots. “Lance Armstrong?”

“What?”

“Are you talking about Lance Armstrong?”

“No. What are you talking about?”

She put the pot lid away before answering. “So,” she breezed, “maybe don’t watch the Lance Armstrong interview until after I’m in bed, okay?”

Continue reading

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