Category Archives: lexicography

Down the “Shithole”: Why Lexicographers Need Your Profanity

Though the average lexicographer is as odd as a horse in trousers, we are, at least, a staid and quiet horse in trousers most of the time. There’s very little that will rile us up, and that’s a feature, not a bug.

But there is one event that makes most lexicographers startle and gasp in delight, one event that will get us to look up from our desks and start shivering and chittering like lab rats on cocaine:

God bless the motherfucking Washington Post

When a well-respected newspaper prints the word “shithole.”

For those who have been blissfully, contentedly residing under a rock (and may I join you?), President Donald Trump held a bipartisan meeting with senators on American immigration policy today, and when protections for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and some African countries were discussed, he was reported as having responded, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”

As soon as word reached us in the bowels of the syntax mines, all activity ceased. It’s not notable because Donald Trump said it, it’s notable because it made it into newspapers–several of them, even!–unexpurgated. We all fizzed with excitement: time to take some motherfucking citations!

The American press has traditionally been loath to print unseemly language like cusswords in full, and this has been a problem for lexicographers on a number of levels. As we all know, dictionary entries need to be based on a word’s accumulated and sustained use in print. We don’t just use that body of accumulated use to come up with a word’s definition, which tends to be one of the easier things to describe, but also its status and its register. Status and register are fancy word-nerd ways of describing where exactly in the language a word sits, and how a word is deployed. Is a word academic jargon? Is it the sort of thing you only see in a Pope or Blake poem? What about Doctor Who fanfic? Is this word a slur? Or is this word boring and everywhere, the Wonder Bread of words, remarkable only because it is wholly unremarkable? If a word is used in a particular context, or with a particular sort of connotation, a lexicographer should tell you that by using those italicized labels that come before the entry: informal, formal, technical, academic, literary, vulgar, disparaging, obscene.

To get a good sense of whether a particular use merits a label, and what kind of label, I need as much evidence before me as I can get, and I need it from as many different types of sources as I can find. My work is hampered if print sources refuse to print indelicate language. Censoring out profanity–especially in news–presents a false reality, a place where presidents and lawmakers are always prudent and prim, and their language always, always decorous. I know as surely as I know that horses do not wear pants that presidents and lawmakers swear on the regular. I hope that they are as creative in their swearing as the writers of “Veep” would have me believe. But my hopes and dreams are not hard evidence. So when the word “shithole” shows up above the fold in the news section of a newspaper, that tells me, as a lexicographer, that this word is not just the province of BuzzFeed or Twitter or pulp fiction, but might actually be (shitty, shitty) Wonder Bread.

Of course, my lexical needs are not anywhere on a newspaper editor’s radar as they stare down a presidential “shithole.” They are thinking of all the angry letters, the cancelled subscriptions, the <shudder> phone calls. So some print sources have tried a middle road, one that communicates the spirit of the quote without getting into the actual letters of it:

shithole NPR

“Trump Uses Vulgar Language To Refer To African Countries, Sources Say.” NPR.org, Jan 11, 2018

This little squadron of asterisks gets across to readers that the word in question is too offensive for this classy joint, while also giving enough context clues for the average reader to figure out that the word which so offends is totally “shithole.” NPR wasn’t alone in whipping out the asterisks; Ben Zimmer reported on Twitter that MSNBC initially went with asterisks, then changed to “shithole,” while Fox News was asterisks all the way down.

Any time lexicographers see censoring like this, we sigh and skip right on by, dumping the quotation out of the citations database. The average reader may assume this word is “shithole,” but your lexicographer is not an average reader. What if this word is actually “sluthole“? “Slophole“? “Suckhole“? English is flexible, and her speakers are remarkably creative when it comes to profanity (cf. “Veep,” above). Or what if the reader or listener isn’t actually familiar with any of those words, including “shithole”? Linguist Todd Snider gets me: “I wonder how many Fox News viewers are thinking about Haiti having lots of sinkholes?” And asterisking can go way too far, even for some of the sweariest among us. When news of the “Access Hollywood” tapes broke, I was at the gym, pretending to run on the treadmill while I stared at a TV on mute. The chyron read “Trump on tape: ‘Grab Them By The *****’.” You know how many five-letter objectionable words there are that fit in that phrase? A whole fucking lot–enough that by the time I ran out of options, I had run an additional (very slow) mile.

The truth is that there have been fairly uneven policies in print sources about what to print and when, but as we head deeper into the Trump years, we’re seeing more consistency. More newspapers are opting to quote him without euphemizing him: the Washington Post’s Executive Editor Marty Baron told the Washingtonian, “When the president says it, we’ll use it verbatim. That’s our policy. We discussed it, quickly, but there was no debate.” “Shithole” was in nearly every story I saw, and it was in more headlines and chyrons than it wasn’t. It was common enough that towards the middle of the news cycle, it was already being riffed on: Phil Mudd on CNN called himself “a proud shitholer,” and then proceeded to break the CNN record for indelicate words per minute, go Phil.

And in our office, this is cause for celebration. I’m fond of saying that lexicographers chart the language, good, bad, and ugly–but we can only chart what we see. And while you may not want to be drowned in a wave of “shitholes,” for lexicographers, that’s the sort of thing we call a party.

 

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A Contest and Some Library Love

I love libraries. In elementary school, I’d grab one of the whistle chairs, drag it underneath the reshelving desk, and hide under there with a stack of books until the verrrrrry last moment of line-up call. My last two years of grade school, my teachers made a deal with me: if I finished all my work early and well, I was allowed to go to the library to read on my own. Heaven. I’d shovel my math worksheet at my teacher and zoom across the hall, where the librarian was ready with another book recommendation, another reminder that I still had two books out, my favorite whistle chair in place under the reshelving desk. The library was the only place I could relax into who I was: a frizzy-haired, buck-toothed, book-loving nerd.

That love continues. While writing Word by Word and while researching for this next book, my local libraries have been indispensable sources of hard-to-find books, research advice, and fiction-bingeing, I-can’t-write-another-word-about-stupid-dictionaries solace. I took my kids to children’s story hour when they were growing up; as they hit their teen years, I encouraged them to go to the teen program the library ran. My little town library hosts events for senior citizens, lectures, classes; provides free computer use and internet access; hosts the town spelling bee and provides meeting space for community organizations. The librarians have never refused to help, even when my question is absurd (“I don’t suppose you have a facsimile of William Bullokar’s 1586 Bref Grammar for English?” “…Can you spell that?”). Every day, librarians show up to work and deal with drunk people, angry people, confused people, and people who just want to sit on the Internet all day and shitpost, so you can understand my fellow-feeling for them.

So, in honor of libraries and the librarians who staff them, I’m running a little contest. Here’s how it works:

  1. Go to a local library.
  2. Check out a book. Any book. Something that catches your eye.
  3. Take a selfie of you and your book. (If you check out ebooks or audiobooks from your library, take a screenshot of the checkout receipt, or a selfie of you reading/listening to said book! ALL BOOKS IN ALL FORMS WELCOME.)
  4. Post it to Twitter or Instagram with the hashtags #WordbyWordLibraryLove and #Sweepstakes.

On October 7, I will choose five entries: those five folks will each win a signed copy of Word by Word.

How does this help your library? Well, it’ll get your sorry butt in there, for one. But I’ll also be making a donation to the American Library Association to help support all the work that libraries do.

The contest is open to anyone over 18 living in the United States (except for residents of VA, because you have very weird laws regarding contests, and residents of the U.S. territories and possessions, because ditto). You’ll find the full rules here.

See you at the library.

Stamper_WordByWord_Sweeps (1)

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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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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

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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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The Times, They Are A-Changing (And So Should Your Dictionary)

I was on an airplane heading to Georgia for a conference when I got into my usual “take my mind off the possibility this plane will suddenly plummet from the sky” conversation with my seatmate. Talk turned to dictionaries, and my seatmate began heaping praise on her old one. She had, she told me proudly, a Webster’s Second, and there was no way in heaven or on earth she was going to give it up for one of those silly modern dictionaries. “My son keeps trying to get me to use a dictionary on my phone, but I tell him, ‘Those new dictionaries aren’t the same quality as the one I have at home.'”

I opened my mouth to say that, nice though the definitions in the Second are, they are almost 80 years out of date, when the supercell we were flying past let out a little meteorological burp and the plane flew right through it. I am not entirely sure, but I believe we may have flipped over several times, and I am certain that the sound that came out of my mouth was not a spirited defense of the modern dictionary (though it was certainly “spirited” in the “possessed by banshees” sense). Our bounce through North Carolina airspace lasted only ten seconds, and afterwards my seatmate excused herself to the lavatory, so our conversation was over.

Had the conversation continued, I would have said this: old dictionaries are nostalgia bombs in more ways than one. The heft of the Second and the Third are glorious: tooled leather and gold-leaf embossing, that powdery vanilla smell of old paper as you smooth the pages back. Then you see this: 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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“God,” Guns, and Group Defining

When people want to make small talk with me—before they realize that I am terrible at it and not worth the time and effort—they will ask what I do, and then sometimes respond with, “So, you pretty much know everything, right?”

I have just taken to smiling wearily and saying, “Yes, I know everything.” I have teenagers, and often enough they are happy to disabuse those people of this asinine notion.

No one knows everything, and lexicographers are just like the rest of humanity (only slightly quieter and perhaps a little more openly deranged). There you are as a lexicographer, minding your own business with “harpy,” when you scan downscreen to your next word and encounter “harquebus” in all its Francophonic glory. You flip through your mental card catalog of Words I Have Seen, find the one labeled “harquebus,” and find your memory has only written, “from a novel, maybe Count of Monte Cristo? Is that a novel? SEE ALSO: sandwiches I have loved.”

Fortunately, the lexicographer doesn’t have to rely on this mental catalog. The lexicographer relies on citations. But what do you do when the citations are less than helpful? Here, for instance, the citations are all variants on “She pulled a harquebus from her corset/stomacher/stocking and shot him dead,” which gives you nothing besides a genus term for your definition (“a gun”) and a ten-minute respite as you ponder whether a gun would even fit inside a corset—or good Lord, a stocking, wouldn’t stockings fall down or even tear under the weight of a what’s-a-hoozy—harquebus? And why are heroines in these novels always pulling weapons from their underwear, anyway?

You return to the citations with a sigh and a determination to carefully study the cover of the next trashy novel you see, just to observe whether the buxom, swooning lass’s dress has pockets in it or not. Continue reading

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No Logic in “Etymological”: A Response I Actually Sent

Today I got an email from someone who watched the “irregardless” video and was appalled (though in the gentlest and kindest manner possible) that I said “irregardless” was a word. It’s not logical! Just look at that sloppy coinage: “ir-” and “regardless.” Why, it should mean “WITH regard to,” not “without regard to”! Who in their right mind is going to use “irrespective” and “regardless”–both perfectly serviceable words–to create a synonym of each word that looks like it should mean the opposite of what it does?

I drafted the reply I wanted to send and saved it to my Nobody Knows The Trouble I Seen folder. Midway through my real response, though, I changed my mind: this guy needed to see the NKTTIS response. Something about the tone of his letter was bothering me. It was not, as these letters usually are, arrogant. It was sad.

English is a little bit like a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go: it heads right for the goddamned light sockets. We put it in nice clothes and tell it to make friends, and it comes home covered in mud, with its underwear on its head and someone else’s socks on its feet. We ask it to clean up or to take out the garbage, and instead it hollers at us that we don’t run its life, man. Then it stomps off to its room to listen to The Smiths in the dark. Continue reading

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Seeing Cerise: Defining Colors in Webster’s Third

When you spend all your time in a book, you think you know it. All the editors at Merriam-Webster know the Third, but now that we’re undertaking a revision of the beast, we’re ears-deep in it, drowning in stuffy single-statement definitions. Each of us breathes a bit shallower when we start futzing around with Philip Babcock Gove’s defining style, waiting for his ghost to dock our pay or perhaps cuff us upside the head as we sully his great work. Add to this the fact that, it’s true, familiarity does breed contempt. At least once a batch, I look at a perfectly constructed definition, accurate and dispassionate to the point of inhumanity, and wish I could add a wildly inappropriate example sentence just to liven things up a bit, like <Doctors suggest you eat kale until your pee is neon green with excess micronutrients.> So you may understand why, while I was slogging my way through a B batch, I was delighted to run across this:

begonia n3 : a deep pink that is bluer, lighter, and stronger than average coral (sense 3b), bluer than fiesta, and bluer and stronger than sweet william — called also gaiety Continue reading

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