Tag 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]@gmail.com

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

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

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

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

We’re All Mad Here

Lexicography, as I may have mentioned, is a very solitary job, and as such, it generally draws the type of person who is delighted to work in near isolation for years on end and in silence so deep it makes monks fidgety. The lexicographer requires only the corpora, the pinks, the project. The only triumphant score that accompanies their work is the mouth-breathing drone of the HVAC system punctuated occasionally by a borborygmus rumble from the water cooler. From this quiet, white egg of industriousness hatches a rara avis in pasteboard plumage: a dictionary.

This is a conveniently trumped-up mythology. True, there is an overwhelming amount of isolation and quiet on the second floor of our office. But look closely at the egg: it is riddled with hairline cracks, its sticky insides only held intact by the taut, thin membrane under the shell. It has been slowly, softly battered, beaten with a million question marks: your egg has been done in by answering editorial correspondence.

You sign up for a job in the Scriptorium, and you rejoice: no more dealing with people, praise Samuel Johnson! Then once you are lulled into a sense of security by the HVAC and given your own customized date-stamp, we spring it on you: people will write in with questions, and you, our expert, will spend a little time each day answering them. Upon hearing this, some new hires slump like deflating balloons; some widen their eyes in surprise until you can see nothing but animal-fear sclera; and some blink furiously, as if holding back tears and recriminations.

I was a fool and just nodded. I was doomed. Continue reading


Filed under correspondence

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

Facts and Truth, Irregardless

It was such a lovely day. I was finishing up my work for the day and, about ten minutes before logging off, decided to post the most looked-up words of the day on Twitter. Those who follow me there know I try to have fun with the words when I can, because you should have fun with this crazy language. But there was one word that had been at the top of the list for several days and that I had been ignoring because I knew that simply mentioning it would cause a firestorm of controversy. But it was such a lovely day! It was sunny and warm, and as I weighed whether or not to post this word– this is not an exaggeration–two birds lit on the telephone wire outside my office and began to sing. I thought, “Oh, c’mon, Kory. Quit being such a moron. Just post the damn word. No one cares, everyone’s on their way home right now anyway.”

So I posted this:

You'd think I'd know better. Continue reading


Filed under correspondence, general

Dear Merriam-Webster

One morning around break time, one of my colleagues passed my cubicle and noticed the look of utter defeat on my face. While this is my default look after 3:00pm, it was still early. He approached with caution. “So,” he murmured, “what’s on the docket for today?”

“Well, first, about five  new words, then a bunch of typos. Then the job requests. Then I think I’ll finish up by ruining young minds and destroying Western civilization. Again.”

He peered at my computer screen. “Haven’t you ruined all the young minds already? Oh, well. Carry on, I guess?” And he sauntered back to his cubicle, happy in the knowledge that he did not have to answer the editorial correspondence that day. Continue reading


Filed under correspondence, general

The Contractually Obligated Post of the Year

The beginning of January is one long, exhausted sigh around here.  We’ve endured months of anticipation accompanied by fervent requests and hints; the news outlets just won’t shut up about the season; and it all culminates in one frenzied evening of eating, yelling, and flying paper. In the morning, you feel bloated and vaguely hungover. Looking at the detritus of the night before, you are filled with self-loathing and weltschmerz. You vow not to do this again next year, but even as the thought finishes sludging its way through your aching head (which you are slowly and deeply rubbing, as if physically reconfiguring your gray matter is the only thing that can help you now), you hear the lie of it. This happens every year.  You let this happen every year. You’d cry if you had any dignity left. As it is, all you can do is moan:

“Goddamned Word of the Year.” Continue reading


Filed under general, of the year