words

Yesterday I was listening to an episode of Fresh Air, an interview with Kory Stamper, a lexicographer and associate editor at Merriam-Webster. The interview was about how the decisions are made to include words in the dictionary, and how best to accommodate words like the N word, which have complicated usage. Context changes the meaning so profoundly, and determines whether it’s a hate word or an affiliative one. (I would’ve thought that would be an easy issue to accommodate — multiple definitions — but that’s not right, apparently. They manage some of this kind of complexity with usage notes.)

Anyway. Stamper said that she gets letters from people about the N word especially, demanding that it not be included in the dictionary. Similarly, when they expanded the definition of marriage to include same sex marriage, oh the letters they received. And parents write all the time, apparently, to demand that words like “fuck” be removed because they don’t want their kids to say those words. To know about them.

AS IF PEOPLE LEARN WORDS AND LANGUAGE BY READING THE DICTIONARY. I’d bet that 99.9% of the time they already know of a word when they reach for the dictionary, so they’re looking for the meaning and usage, or the pronunciation. Obviously there are people like me, who read the dictionary for fun, but I think we are such a tiny minority we shouldn’t count on this issue of word inclusion. The complainers didn’t seem to be upset by a concern that the inclusion of the word means something, that it is now legitimately part of our language. They simply didn’t want their kids to learn about it.  That’s just so strange, to me.

Part of the conversation was about “English,” and she said we all speak a dialect. Standard English is used for writing, it’s what we’re taught in school, but we really don’t speak it. And we don’t even always use it in writing. She said she never EVER corrects people when they’re talking — jerkery of the highest order, she said and I agree — but even in writing she doesn’t correct them. Of course there’s a time and place for proper language usage, but language is fluid. Gosh I could not agree more. People think it’s funny to be a “grammar Nazi” and seem to take a kind of pride in it, a way they get to feel superior; they also assume that since I work as a freelance editor I must be a grammar Nazi too. (My response: I will if you pay me to do it but otherwise nope. I also care much less about what a rule says and much more about clarity of expression.)

And this was fascinating: so many of the “rules” we go by (never split an infinitive! Don’t end a sentence with a preposition!) are holdovers from other languages. The split infinitive rule stems from Latin . . . where it is simply impossible to split an infinitive because it’s one word. So a long time ago people thought Latin was the fancy language and English needed to be fancier….hence more like Latin…..hence no splitting of infinitives.

It’s a fascinating conversation, and I recommend the podcast episode! This is one domain in which the Internet has improved the landscape; not only can lexicographers more fluidly change the dictionary — no need to wait 10 years for the print update — but they can also track usage more easily with the massive databases that are available. I wonder how one becomes a lexicographer (I’m always looking for a career, what I will be when I grow up); I just found this fascinating article in the NYTimes, worth a quick read. Apparently lexicographers are born, less than made.

this would’ve been me, but I had blue cat-eye glasses. With rhinestones.

It made me think of the search for the new Dalai Lama when the old one dies: monks go out into the world looking for the new incarnation — maybe a search for lexicographers would involve knocking on doors and pulling little girls who are hiding under the covers reading the dictionary. They would’ve found me, for sure.

And then I came across this quote I’d saved:

“DEFINITION NOT FOUND IN THE DICTIONARY Not leaving: an act of trust and love, often deciphered by children” —Markus Zusak

and I think about all the ideas, feelings, experiences we have that we don’t have words for, that can’t be found in the dictionary. That’s why we all seem to love those lists of words in other languages that we don’t have in ours, like schadenfreude, and saudade.

Many of my friends love words and language as much as I do — there are so many of us! I don’t despair over some decrepitude in English; it changes, because that’s what language does. Anyway. This one’s for the word nerds among us. xoxoxox

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