The Merriam-Webster Lexicographer

kory stamper
“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.”

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.”

Age: 42
Based in: Outside Philadelphia
Graduated from: Smith College, where I got a degree in medieval studies with a focus on language and literature.
Years in the business: 19

Previous jobs: Administrative assistant at a development and alumni office; freelance editor

What the interview for the Merriam-Webster job was 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 gonna 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.”

But you accepted anyway. Do you have any human interaction now? The main headquarters in Massachusetts is divided into two floors, which mirrors the hierarchy we have. The bottom floor is for the executives, marketing department, customer service, and sales. All the normal people with social skills. Upstairs are the editors, and it’s one of the quietest places you’ll ever be. According to one of our editors emeritus, there used to be a formal rule of silence on the editorial floor, which might seem inhumane. But now, as a function of the change in guard [in the White House], there’s a little more noise. People occasionally take phone calls at their desks.

How else has Merriam-Webster changed over your 19 years there? We’ve moved from paper to digital in all parts. We do all editing electronically. Our primary product used to be paper dictionaries.

Editorial_ConferenceRm_HistorialVols copy
The historical volumes in a conference room at the Merriam-Webster offices. Print isn’t quite dead yet.

The process for adding new words to the dictionary: There are two parts. The first is finding evidence for a word, which gets done every day. 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:

  1. Widespread use: not just geographically, but also tonally. We might draw from the Wall Street Journal as well as Bitch magazine.
  2. Shelf life and sustained use. The words needs to have hit a critical mass.
  3. Meaningful use. We got 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. We’re synthesizing and distilling down how everyone else is using that word. Everyone who writes definitions gets the same training, so we learn the same thresholds for criteria. 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? Sometimes, almost no time. 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 4 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.”

That mindset — being constantly on the lookout for new words — must be hard to turn off on the weekends or on vacation. If you’re trained as a definer, you always notice words. Even when I’m not at work, I email myself notes all the time: Check to see if we’ve got this word. You can’t really turn it off, even when you want to.

Which words have you emailed yourself about lately? One was “readout,” because you’re seeing more about White House readouts. Another was “scobie,” which is used in making kombucha. I was at a party and someone was talking about it, so I texted it to myself.

The internet must make it easier to make those additions more frequently. We do website updates at least twice a year. Our goal is three to four times a year, but it depends what else is going on.

The biggest change [with being online] is that we’re no longer bound by the tyranny of the alphabet. Beforehand, we could only review words in alphabetical order, which means if I was adding new words in D and, in the process, noticed a typo in a word in R, I had to wait a year to make that fix, until we got to R. Now, I can fix it right away.

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.

CitationFileDrawer copy
A citation file drawer in the office. “Lexicographers have so much crazy insight into English,” Stamper says.

What about newer words and acronyms, like “selfie” and “OMG”? You have to be able to set aside your hatred or love for a word and look at the evidence. Because it’s scientific, we tend not to get too worked up over what is and isn’t included. We’re a pretty dispassionate bunch.

But many of your followers aren’t. 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 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.

Speaking of controversy, Merriam-Webster’s corporate Twitter account has been wonderfully cheeky since the election. Was that a calculated strategy? The voice is pretty organic. It’s just a natural extension of who we all are in the office. We’ve been tweeting about lots of words, many of which are political, for a long time — certainly before the election. I know a lot of people are like, You’re leading the resistance! You’re clapping back! or whatever. We’re flattered, but that’s not what we’re doing. An editor tweeted the definition of “fact” because the word was actually spiking in lookups, and everyone responded, Wow, savage.

But people are certainly paying more attention than they were before November. I do think words matter more to people now. Words are being used in a new way.

Best part of the job: I love this dumb language. I love words. You get to see a whole lot of crazy words when you do this job.

Most challenging part of the job: The nature of modern commercial lexicography and its effect on workflow. In addition to defining, I am pinged on Twitter 24/7 with questions; I write articles for the website; I proofread our Word of the Day. But when you’re defining, you really can’t multitask. So I’m always trying to figure out new ways to do my job.

“I like books and paper, and there are times I miss paper galleys. But I feel like the internet is so amazing for lexicography,” Stamper says. Here, the citation room.

Do you think lexicographers have it easier or harder today than in the pre-internet age? I don’t know how lexicographers did things before the internet — and I did this before the internet! Of course, online, there are no space constraints, so we can add as much context as necessary per entry. But we also have access to so much more English than we did before — especially informal English, or English that was traditionally shoved into the margins. The Root gives me African-American English vernacular I wouldn’t get elsewhere; The Times of India shows me how English is being used in India. I can see more global English now.

Where do the example sentences alongside a definition come from? Some have attributions. If it doesn’t, an editor came up with it. There are crazy-strict rules about example sentences: They should be as typical and boring as possible. It’s actually a time suck to come up with good ones. It might be the hardest part of the job.

Most surprising part of the job: That it’s a job! People assume the dictionary is this thing we get from on high, like a holy book, carved into stone and delivered from Sinai. When I tell people I write dictionaries, one question I get is, Hasn’t the dictionary already been written? Nobody thinks about the people behind the dictionary.

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, is now available. Above: Photo of Kory Stamper, courtesy of Michael Lionstar; remaining photos, courtesy of Merriam-Webster.

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