The Merriam-Webster Lexicographer

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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.”

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 Only Female Pro Skywriter in America

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

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.

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

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

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.

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The Paparazzi for Hire

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

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.

Age: 36
Based in: Grand Rapids, Michigan
Graduated from: Grand Valley State University in Michigan, where I studied theater.
Years in the business: 10

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The Marijuana Czar of Colorado

Outside of work, Andrew Freedman tries not to tell anyone about his job. Not because it’s a top-secret government position; yes, it’s a government job, but probably one you never knew existed.

His official, jargon-y title is director of marijuana coordination for Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado—a title that didn’t exist before he got the job in February 2014. But he may be better known as his unofficial, colloquial title: marijuana czar.

“[Telling people what I do] has ruined almost every dinner conversation I’ve had,” Freedman says. “Sometimes I get caught up in a pro- or anti-legalization debate, so I’ve witnessed everything from admiration to anger.”

Colorado made history when it became the first U.S. state to legalize the recreational use and sale of marijuana in 2014, but Freedman steers clear of advocating for or against legalization. Here’s how he got the job, the challenges he faces, and why half-baked ideas (sorry, had to) for getting rich quick off Colorado’s pot market don’t usually pan out.

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The otherwise nondescript office where Freedman (left) works has some old prohibition posters hanging, to remind them of where they are historically.
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