The Merriam-Webster Lexicographer

When people learn about Kory Stamper’s job, some respond with confusion. “They ask, Hasn’t the dictionary already been written? I have it right here, I got it when I graduated from high school,” 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.”

“We’re always dealing with some kind of blowback because language is so personal. It’s how we communicate,” Stamper says. 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 three criteria.

One editor specifically handles a word’s first date of written use; one editor handles words’ etymologies; four science editors are divided by specialty; two cross-reference editors make sure definitions only include words already in the dictionary; the pronunciation editor looks at every word, sometimes pulling pronunciations from YouTube. Then, of course, there are proofreaders and copy editors.

But every editor at Merriam-Webster, regardless of title, is involved in the making of dictionaries, Stamper says. Even when that means rejecting countless requests to add “covfefe.”

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“The job of a lexicographer is to explain language to people, and the internet gives you all sorts of new ways to do that. We can talk about the differences between commonly confused words using emoji on Twitter.”

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The Guru of Good Manners

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Photo: Brook Cristopher

Myka Meier doesn’t own a single pair of sweatpants. Or jeans.

Those statements make a little more sense when you learn her background. Meier is an etiquette expert who trained under a former member of Queen Elizabeth II’s royal household, and now runs a finishing program called Beaumont Etiquette.

That might conjure memories of The Princess Diaries, or antiquated values of how a lady should act in public. (Cue eye roll.) While much of her work does focus on the outward — maintaining eye contact and good posture — it all stems from inspiring a sense of confidence and respect, Meier says.

“It’s not about holding forks and knives correctly. Etiquette is about treating others kindly, and that never goes out of style,” she says. Fair enough. Many are so reliant on technology to make connections, we’re at a loss when it comes to holding actual conversation around a dinner table of, say, new colleagues.

Clearly, Meier has hit on something salient; she sees thousands and thousands of clients each year, and her etiquette courses at The Plaza Hotel in New York City have sold out. (They’ve since opened more.) The topics covered in her classes range from ghosting to when it’s OK to sleep with someone: not your grandma’s etiquette classes.

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The Only Female Pro Skywriter in America

The first time Suzanne Asbury-Oliver flew a plane, she was 14 years old. That was the easy stuff, in a sailplane, back when she could actually see in front of her.

As a skywriter for Pepsi, Asbury-Oliver spent 25 years crafting messages with smoke in the sky, frequently taking her dog along for the ride in the front seat. She flew an antique biplane, which completely obscures one’s line of vision. That means she’s writing the mirror image of words at 10,000 feet above Earth, effectively with her eyes closed. “It’s seat-of-the-pants-type flying,” she says.

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Asbury-Oliver, several decades ago while working as Pepsi’s skywriter. Look closely for the “Suzanne” painted on the plane’s side. Image: airandspace.si.edu

Now, without a corporate sponsor, she and her husband own their own plane and skywriting business called Olivers Flying Circus. They received plenty of requests in the leadup and aftermath of Nov. 8 — yes, just like the ones you’re imagining — but Asbury-Oliver refused, on a no-negativity principle.

Since letters only last in the sky about 10 minutes, the beginning of a word will sometimes disappear by the time that word is finished, but Asbury-Oliver doesn’t worry about that. “It’s like a ticker tape; you know what it says even if the first letters are gone,” she says. Or, more fittingly, like an original Snapchat — except, of course, that anyone within a 20-mile radius can see it if they simply look up.

The most crucial lesson Asbury-Oliver has learned from a career in skywriting is survival. “Never fly straight over a swamp,” she advises sagely. “If you have an engine failure and end up going down, nobody will find you, except the alligators.”

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The Voice of the Scripps National Spelling Bee

During the Scripps National Spelling Bee, your eyes are probably glued to a single microphone: the one on stage, which students grip each year as though their lives depended on it.

But behind another mic, just a few feet away, sits a man who’s been at every Scripps bee since 1991: the official pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, who won the bee himself in 1980. But his job is much more than reading a list of words. He’s something of an icon among the students. “A lot of spellers want my autograph, which is the best fan club you can imagine,” he says.

Below, Bailly divulges how the words are chosen (well, kinda — a lot of “what happens in word club stays in word club”); how those used-in-context sentences are crafted (sometimes, Scripps hires comedy writers to write funny ones); and the most evil word he’s ever faced.

Even though it’s not a full-time gig, the job requires year-round work. “It’s basically a joy,” Bailly says. “They did start paying me for it a while ago, but I’d do it even without pay.”

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“Spelling is kind of a gateway skill, like arithmetic,” Bailly says. “It’s nowhere near the destination.”

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The Bubble Queen

Since age 3, Melody Yang’s life has always revolved around bubbles. And not the wimpy bubbles that are emitted from a tiny plastic wand that fits in your back pocket. Serious, record-breaking bubbles.

Bubbles run in her family’s blood: Along with her siblings, Yang is one of the stars of the Gazillion Bubble Show, which her father started more than 20 years ago. For every New York show, she uses about 30 gallons of her family’s secret bubble solution; for bigger international shows, she’ll use up to 60 gallons. While she wouldn’t reveal the solution’s ingredient list, Yang did impart some of her other secrets — like how she made the world’s largest bubble (170 feet long) and fit the most people ever inside a bubble (181; it was supposed to be 200, but the shorter kids weren’t counted).

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“I will never get tired of bubbles,” Yang says.

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The Paparazzi for Hire

If you want to be famous, you can spend your life striving for success and acclaim.

Or you can hire a few actors.

Scott Cramton is the founder of Famous for a Day, which lets you rent any number of paparazzi and even bodyguards to make you feel special. The company, which he started in 2006, now operates in 25 cities across the U.S. While they don’t get many gigs in LA (“I think they’re kind of over it there,” Cramton says), in places like Kansas City, cars stop on the street to ogle the photographers just as much as the “star.”

“The paparazzi legitimately hounds you like you’re Kanye or a Kardashian, and you get that amazing feeling,” Cramton coos. By “paparazzi,” of course, he’s referring to four or five trained actors who show up with corded mics leading nowhere and cameras with enormous flashbulbs. They’re screaming your name, but only because you — or maybe your best friend or bridesmaid — filled out a form ahead of time, telling them where to meet you and what to shout.

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“It’s as close to functional magic as I’ve ever seen,” Cramton says. Photo: hirepaparazzinewyork.com

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The Reindeer Trainer in Santa’s Village

You know Alpi and Aituri and Jukka and Jussi, Kaapo and Laukko and Taisto and Juntti. But do you recall, the most famous reindeer of all…

OK, those aren’t the reindeer in the song you grew up with. But in Rovaniemi, Finland, an almost magical city in the Arctic Circle known as “the official hometown of Santa Claus,” those are the reindeer you’ll find.

Janne Körkkö and his family own a farm where they train dozens of reindeer each year to pull sleighs full of giddy tourists in Santa Claus Village during their high season, which lasts from November through February. (Even the summer is mostly preparation for winter.) Working with the fur-covered, 400-pound creatures been his family’s livelihood for generations. “Santa Claus trusts us quite a lot,” Körkkö says. He’s not kidding.

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Janne Körkkö leading the way. A 1000-meter ride (about 0.6 miles) costs $24 for kids and $30 for adults.

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