Category Archives: lexicography

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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Filed under general, history

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

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 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


Filed under general, lexicography, making word sausage

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


Filed under lexicography, making word sausage

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?”


“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


Filed under correspondence, general, lexicography

“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


Filed under lexicography, making word sausage

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


Filed under correspondence, general, lexicography, the decline of English

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


Filed under famous lexicographers, general, history, lexicography, making word sausage

Assembling the Treasury, Wordhoard, Synonymicon, Thesaurus

All lexicographers, regardless of where on the prescriptivist/descriptivist spectrum they fall, like to tell you they are totally objective when writing their dictionaries. They get worked up into a veritable froth if you suggest otherwise, maybe even raising their voices to conversational levels and daring to make eye contact when they tell you that you are utterly wrong. Lexicography’s underlying tenet is complete objectivity! Get thee behind me, John Dryden!

Notice how they conveniently fail to talk about thesauruses when objectivity comes up.

Unlike dictionaries, there is no one approach to compiling a thesaurus, no Unified Theory of Synonyms. The main goal that all of them have is to present an entry word and a group of words related to that entry word, but how those words are specifically related to the entry–and how they are presented–is varied, to say the least. Continue reading


Filed under lexicography, making word sausage, thesaurizing

A Letter to a Prospective Lexicographer

We regularly receive letters from people who want an editorial job at M-W and ask for more information on lexicography. It’s my job to answer those letters. Here is the response I wish I could send.

Thank you for your interest in becoming an editor at Merriam-Webster.  I am happy to share some information on the field of lexicography with you.

There are only three formal requirements for becoming a Merriam-Webster editor. First, we respectfully ask that you be a native speaker of English. I think I should break this to you now, before you begin shopping for tweeds and practicing your “tally ho what”: we focus primarily on American English. It’s not that we don’t like British English and its speakers. Indeed, we have an instinctual, deep love for any people who, upon encountering a steamed pudding with currants in it for the first time, thought, “The name of this shall be ‘Spotted Dick’.” But since we are the oldest American dictionary company around, and we are located in a particularly American part of the world, we feel it’s best to play to our strengths. Continue reading


Filed under general, lexicography