When people learn about Kory Stamper’s job, some respond with confusion. “They ask, ‘Hasn’t the dictionary already been written?’,” Stamper says.
What they don’t understand is that language is always growing and evolving—and so must the dictionary.
Stamper, who has worked at Merriam-Webster for 19 years, still marvels at how the internet has changed her job. She shrugs at complaints about the recent additions of terms like “OMG” or “selfie.” But the Merriam-Webster staff treats it like any other job where one would naturally set aside emotion in a business transaction: They dismiss linguistic prejudice and evaluate new words based on a set of criteria.
Smith College—where I got a degree in medieval studies with a focus on language and literature
I was an administrative assistant at a development and alumni office and a freelance editor.
What Was the Interview for the Merriam-Webster Job Like?
It was so long ago that I applied on paper. I saw an ad in the newspaper for an editorial assistant job at a “reference publisher”—I don’t think Merriam-Webster was actually mentioned—and I sent in my resume.
I had no idea what the job actually was when I interviewed. The editor-in-chief did everything in his power to dissuade me from taking the job. He was like, “You’re going to be sitting at your desk by yourself for eight hours a day. You’re not dealing with the public at all. If you want human interaction, you shouldn’t continue in this pursuit.”
What’s the Process for Adding New Words to the Dictionary?
There are two parts. The first is finding evidence for a word—that involves reading for words that catch your eye, in anything from traditional print sources and trade journals to blogs, websites, and sometimes Twitter.
From there, any words that are added into our database need to meet a few criteria for entry:
- Widespread use: not just geographically, but also tonally
- Shelf life and sustained use: The word needs to have hit a critical mass.
- Meaningful use: We’ve been asked a million times if we were going to add “covfefe.” The answer was no, because it has no meaning. It’s clearly a typo.
Once a word has met those criteria, we get down to the defining, which is based on how the word is used in all those accumulated sources.
After all that, the word goes through a copy editor, the pronunciation editor, and cross-referencers. So there’s a quorum, but we’re not all sitting in a conference room with scotch and cigars and voting a word in. It’s a suitably quiet and nerdy quorum.
How Long Does That Take, From Start to Finish?
If I’m dealing with easy words that have one meaning and consistent use, I can get through five or six definitions in a day.
Other entries take a lot longer. Revising the entry for “god” took me four months. Sometimes, a new entry has so many variant pronunciations that the editor has to sift through thousands of instances of someone saying the word “lingerie” or spelling “Chanuka.”
I Imagine Merriam-Webster Editors Don’t Always Agree About Which Words Are Worthy of New Entries?
The word “ollie”—the skateboard trick—engendered a huge note-based back-and-forth between a former editor and me in the late 1990s. We argued about it on slips of paper delivered through interoffice mail. That’s probably as argumentative as we get.
Was “Ollie” Eventually Added?
Yes, I got it in.
How Do You Deal With Blowback After Adding a New Word That Linguistic Purists May Strongly Disagree With?
It depends what the blowback is. If it’s benign, like, I can’t believe you entered “LOL,” the language is dying, Noah Webster is turning in his grave, we can point them to a video about why we put it in the dictionary. Or, we can say, “Here’s our reasoning in a few steps.”
Other times, it’s more serious. When we entered a definition for marriage that included same-sex marriage, we got lots of blowback that was very violent. Nothing I was going to say would convince them it’s OK. We’re always dealing with some kind of blowback because language is so personal. It’s how we communicate, so we feel strongly about it, even though it doesn’t have an actual effect on your life.
In That Sense, Are Dictionaries a Dying Breed?
Although people care more about words now, I’m not sure they care as much about dictionaries. If you need a definition, you’ll just Google it and take the first thing you see.
Sometimes that’s great, and sometimes not, depending on the source. Sometimes I wonder, if we’re not paying attention to where that information comes from, what else are we missing?
Kory Stamper’s new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, is now on shelves.
This article was originally published on No Joe Schmo. It has been republished here with permission.
Photo of Kory Stamper courtesy of Michael Lionstar.