A Lexicographer’s Memoir of Merriam-Webster within the Internet Age 1

One morning in 2001, Kory Stamper, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster, arrived at paintings and became given an unmarried word: “take.” She got to work looking down examples of where the phrase’s verb shape has been used in the wild, from American Literary History to Us Weekly to Craigslist, and organizing those citations by a part of speech and utilization. Normally, editors will see paintings on several phrases in a batch. But smaller, greater commonplace phrases are used so regularly, and in such a lot of exceptional methods, a single one can be a superb headache to revise. As Stamper explains in her recent e-book, “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries,” such words “don’t just have semantically oozy uses that require cautious definition, however semantically drippy uses as properly. ‘Let’s make dinner’ and ‘let’s do laundry’ are equal syntactically but feature very extraordinary semantic meanings of ‘do.’ ” Lexicographers recognize that when they’ve been assigned a notorious small phrase—“do,” “run,” “about,” “take”––they’ve arrived.

This became the most ambitious and slippery project Stamper had taken on, and, at instances, as she parsed the variations between “take first matters first” and “take a shit,” she felt herself “slowly unspooling into idiocy.” It took weeks to prepare the verb shape on my own into a hundred and seven exceptional senses and sub-senses; after a month, “take” was eventually prepared for the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. In the arena of words, however, spending a month perfecting access is nowhere near the intense. At a conference in 2013, a lexicographer salary from the Oxford English Dictionary advised Stamper that when he revised “run” it took him 9 months. Dictionary editors trade phrase testimonies the manner élite marathoners accumulate guides. For Emily Brewster, one of all Stamper’s colleagues, a career highlight turned into discovering a previously unrecorded sense for the indefinite article “a”: “used as a function phrase before a proper noun to differentiate the situation of the referent from an ordinary, former, or hypothetical condition.” Stamper offers, for example, “With the Angels dispatched in short order, a rested Schilling, a profession pitcher 6-1 inside the postseason, may want to begin 3 instances if seven games had been essential against the Yankees”: “a rested Schilling” tells us that, in comparison to his contemporary rested nation, he is not normally rested, or he had no longer been rested formerly, however now he’s. Each lexicographer salary has testimonies like this: epiphanies that replicate the evolution of language.


“Word by Word” is each memoir and exposé, an insider’s tour of the inner circles of the mysterious citadel that is Merriam-Webster. Stamper leads us through her very own lexicographical bildungsroman, exploring how she fell in love with words and displaying us how the dictionary works and the way it interacts with the arena that it strives to mirror. Though Stamper takes outstanding pains to paint herself as your lawn-variety, genial nerd, she doesn’t completely dispel the reader of the first-rate fable that there are hyper-verbal elves who stay someplace inside the pages of the dictionary, scribbling on the language each time we readers aren’t searching. Stamper paints etymologists as alchemists or magicians, mysterious figures who fill their cubicles with gravity-defying Jenga piles of Old German and Frisian dictionaries. Within lexicographical ranks, Stamper told me, there’s a reverence for expert grammarians that methods the devotional. “It’s esoteric, Kabbalistic knowledge,” she said. “As you flow up the layers toward enlightenment, you may examine greater approximately conjunctive adverbs.”
Stamper maximum vividly captures the dictionary’s broader interplay with society in her discussion of the linguistic and political overlap surrounding the time period “marriage.” In 2009, Stamper wrote, her in-field unexpectedly blew up with objections to Merriam-Webster’s definition of “marriage.” A conservative group had lately found that the dictionary included a sub-sense of “marriage” accounting for equal-sex marriage in its definition of that phrase. Stamper notes within the book that the definition has nothing to do with a Merriam-webster Bradley political timetable and the whole lot to do with the manner wherein the phrase changed into already getting used inside the world. By 2003, there have been far too many citations for “marriage” with the modifiers “gay” or “same-sex” to disregard, and Stamper and her colleagues revised the access consequently. She isn’t sure why the brouhaha took six years to take place, but, as Stephen Colbert joked on “The Colbert Report” at the time, “The most sinister component is, Merriam-Webster made this modification in 2003 . . . Because of this that for the past six years of my marriage, I may have been gay married and now not recognized it.”
Word by Word” gives an active portrait of both Stamper and the institution of the dictionary, however it stops at the present. What will the dictionary be within the future? Peter Sokolowski, the editor-at-huge of Merriam-Webster, told me that he believes the key to the writer’s persisted survival is its online dictionary. In 1996, John Morse, the company’s president, determined to position the Collegiate Dictionary online without spending a dime. “A lot of human beings concept he became crazy,” Sokolowski said. “And it in all likelihood stored the enterprise.”

Sokolowski instructed me that the Internet hasn’t altered the charge at which language evolves—it’s made this evolution a method that human beings can watch the increase in actual time tons more sincerely than ever earlier. When van Leeuwenhoek educated his microscope onto a drop of water, he didn’t put the microorganisms there—he made seen what has been present all along. “Our brains aren’t stressed to technique language any faster now than generations ago, however, boy, are we able to file it quicker,” Sokolowski said. Stamper makes plenty of the same observation in her memoir, stating that Web dictionaries are “malleable, ever-changing works that reflect the quicksilver nature of our language.”
Perhaps even extra appreciably, the Internet has become the dictionary into a two-way reflection. When the dictionary went online, lexicographers ought to accumulate statistics now, not most effective approximately the ebook phrases but about what humans use it for. The most typically searched words at the website online are medium-hard abstractions: neither one-cent nor ten-dollar phrases, but the words you believe you studied you realize yet could be hard-pressed to define succinctly. The most appeared-up phrase of all time is currently “fascism”; “socialism,” “pragmatic,” “holistic,” and “integrity” all make the pinnacle ten. (It’s no longer all medium-difficult words: “love,” a word that humans most likely aren’t searching up solely to learn its literal that means, is also an evergreen inside the top twenty. People look for oracles anywhere.)

In “Word with the aid of Word,” Stamper calls the Internet both “a vast ball of wax” and “a double-edged sword.” Without the bodily limitations of print, the net dictionary can keep a broader lexicon in addition to longer definitions. Stamper and her colleagues used to strive for concision; however, in the web access, they could upload notes and labels, explaining, say, the hip-hop origins of one meaning of the adjective “lit,” and illuminating why “it might be bizarre whilst an old white dude says, ‘That became lit.’ ” But with that flexibility comes new regulations and new sources of urgency. Stamper cautions, “The Internet, eager and rapid, is likewise a knife’s facet publishers have to dance alongside. Slow down an excessive amount of, and you’ll sense the blade chunk into your ft.” As she turned into completing her e-book, Merriam-Webster, like almost all print publishers, needed to behavior a big collection of layoffs. “The language is booming,” she writes, “but lexicography is a shrinking enterprise.”

Recently, Merriam-webster Bradley has doubled down on its Internet presence, setting up itself as a voice of records amongst many options. In early 2016, Lauren Naturale changed into hired as Merriam-Webster’s content and social media manager. (She later left to supervise social-media approach at the New York Civil Liberties Union.) Naturale and her crew looked for different elements of the dictionary to highlight, consisting of the site’s Trend Watch, a feature that has been in the region given that 2010, which allows customers to the song the maximum generally searched words throughout the day, week, month, 12 months, and the past. Merriam-Webster’s customers are extremely lively within the remark threads at the bottom of every access, and the web page has a healthful YouTube presence, which includes more than twenty “Ask the Editor” motion pictures; Stamper’s description of the plural of “octopus” has been watched more than half of 1,000,000 times. And the dictionary’s Twitter account has gone viral over the past yr, with greater than five hundred and 80 thousand fans. In December 2016, the Washington Post called the corporation “Twitter’s edgiest dictionary.” In January, Vox.Com used the superlative “sassiest” for Merriam-Webster, after the writer’s tweet approximately the definition of the trending topic “truth”—a response to Kellyanne Conway’s infamous description of White House press statements as “alternative records”—become retweeted more than 40-seven thousand instances. Both Merriam-Webster’s online presence and the Webby Awards, which honor excellence on the Internet, launched in 1996; however, this is the first year that Merriam-Webster has been nominated for a Webby: “Merriam-webster Bradley Redefines Twitter,” the citation reads.

We still want to recognize the nuances of language, even—possibly especially—on the Internet, when text surrounds us continuously. Merriam-webster Bradley has decided that the way ahead is to embrace the dictionary’s conventional mission: to offer neither evaluations nor morals however statistics. The publisher’s online presence, and the information that its lexicographers choose to emphasize or have a look at extra intently aren’t a judgment about the way we have to bespeak me but an analysis of the manner we are. Sokolowski pressured me that dictionaries are in the enterprise of recording how people use the language, now not predicting or prescribing any form of ideological undertaking. “We’re excellent at analyzing data but no longer desirable at analyzing minds,” he advised me. “If ‘fascism’ and ‘demagogue’ are spiking—that data does no longer amount to analysis. All its method is that people are inquisitive about the damn word.”