Listen to and read about this episode at theallusionist.org/authority.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, throw a towel over language because not every beach is a nudist beach.
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This episode is sponsored by Blue Apron. Update on my jetlagged airbnb Blue Apron: worked out very well. Even when, without a rolling pin, we resorted to rolling out pizza dough using a previous occupant’s abandoned tequila bottle wrapped in a bin bag. And I have to level with you in a way that I couldn’t with the dough and the tequila bottle: I was not optimistic that this pizza was going to turn out at all palatable. When it went into the oven, it looked like I’d fed some dough and spinach and cheese through a lawnmower. But it emerged from the oven beautifully golden and delicious. You nailed it, Blue Apron! If you’re in the contiguous United States, you can get three Blue Apron meals for free at blueapron.com/allusionist. They’ll source all the ingredients for you and drop them off in a refrigerated box at your door. Everything’s included but the tequila bottle and bin bag.
On with the show.
HZ: What is the function of a dictionary?
KORY STAMPER: Oh boy.
KORY STAMPER: How many hours have we got?
HZ: Well, you wrote about 270 pages on it...
KORY STAMPER: So primarily the function of a dictionary is to record as much of the language in use as it can, as that language is used and not as we wish that language is used.
Many people assume dictionaries function as gatekeepers of proper English; that they don't let wrong words in or ugly words in or bad words. And that's just not true. Any word that's used in print is fair game for entry into a dictionary. So that's the first usually mindblowing thing about dictionaries.
The other is you're trying to gather as much of the language as possible. And that means that you're going for everything from historical uses all the way to modern slang. But you know you're not going to catch it all. You know you just can't catch it all. So you have to make some judgment calls and set some criteria for what's eligible for entry into certain dictionaries.
So there are three main criteria that every entry in a Merriam-Webster dictionary - and frankly most professionally edited dictionaries - has to meet. It has to have widespread use because we're a general dictionary. We're looking at language that gets used across a wide variety of types of sources and geographical areas. So you're looking for a big spread of information.
The second criteria is sustained usage. Because language is fluid, things come into use - written use - and then drop out of use, or things are in spoken use for a very long time before they show up in written use. Or things have sporadic written use for a very long time. And because print dictionaries in particular, space is at such a premium, you really need to think carefully about, "All right. If I enter this word now and it's in its first flush of use and everyone's using it" - 'on fleek', let's say I'm going to enter 'fleek' -
HZ: - attributed to a 2014 vine video by Chicago teenager Peaches Monroee in which she declares her eyebrows to be ‘on fleek’ -
KORY STAMPER: "Everyone's using 'on fleek'; is everyone going to be using 'on fleek' in five years?" Well you can't know that, you know; we're not clairvoyant. We're not very good at that. So you want to have a body of sustained use, so that you can say OK it looks like this has pretty much entered the language fully.
And then the third criterion is it has to have a meaning. And that sounds ridiculous but there are words that occasionally make it into print that are mostly examples of long words or examples of nonsense. And so those are not really eligible. You can't write a meaning for 'antidisestablishmentarianism' when all the evidence just shows it being used as an example of a long word.
HZ: What are the most difficult words to define?
KORY STAMPER: The small ones. I defined the verb and the noun 'take' for our Collegiate Dictionary; that took me quite a while.
HZ: How long?
KORY STAMPER: That took me about a month.
HZ: And you manage not to set the whole thing on fire.
KORY STAMPER: Yeah, just barely though. There were some moments. I also worked on the entries for 'go' and 'do' for our Learner's Dictionary - a Learner's Dictionary is a dictionary for people who are learning English as a foreign language.
HZ: Let’s take a moment to define ‘do’.... Argh, it’s infernal! I’m in a semantic maze and I keep getting spat back out at the beginning!
KORY STAMPER: The small words are always the hardest because their uses, their semantic uses, are difficult to describe and they're also just everywhere. You have no idea how many times you use 'go' or 'do' until you have to catalog all of the major ways that people use 'go' or 'do'. And their slight differences: like doing your laundry is different from doing dinner; if you say to someone, "Hey, let's do dinner," that's a different meaning than saying someone "Hey, let's do our laundry". Those are two different meanings of 'do', even though syntactically they look exactly the same. And those entries are huge; they're really long.
The hard part about doing small words is it takes so much time and they're completely unappreciated. Nobody looks these words up. No one's going to look up 'as'. But it's your job; that's your job: you're going to accurately collect, define and arrange as as many of the words in the language as you can and that includes as and that includes go and do even if nobody ever looks those words up.
HZ: You also have to write those definitions in a very precise way, using only words that appear in the dictionary, and exhibiting no opinion, no bias, as little character as possible - boring, basically, you have to write a dictionary to be boring.
KORY STAMPER: Sometimes you want to make the dictionary sexy but it's just not a sexy thing. That's OK.
HZ: It's got rude words in it.
KORY STAMPER: It does have rude words in it. But they're defined really unsexily. There's no oomph to any of the rude words. Alas.
HZ: But it is deliberate that there is no oomph.
KORY STAMPER: Absolutely. The dictionary shouldn't have narrative interest, and you really want - especially with profanity - you really want those definitions to be very clear. But you don't want them to detract from the other definitions around them. Nothing should really stand out in the dictionary as being more interesting or having more narrative interests than any other entry. So they're very deliberately boring. We do deliberately boring very well.
HZ: Why does it have to be boring?
KORY STAMPER: That's a good question. I think if it's not boring... What I've found is that people trust dispassionate boring entries more than that same information given with some sort of narrative interest. Maybe people just assume that if something is presented blandly it must be authoritative.
HZ: And dictionaries are seen as authoritative.
KORY STAMPER: Because the dictionary is seen as an authority - and honestly, especially in the United States, that's a historical problem that dictionaries created. That's how we sold dictionaries in the 1800s, was to say that we knew everything and we were the authority. So because people see it as an authority, they also assume that it functions in the role of an authority; and authorities tend to set limits, keep some things on one side of a rule and other things on another side of a rule. So yeah, people, because they see it as an authority, they assume that it's prescriptive, that it champions the best practices of English. And so they get their knickers in a knot, then, when they find entries for words like 'irregardless' in dictionaries because that's just wrong and ugly and stupid, why would you enter that word? But it's because it's been used in print quite a bit.
HZ: That is the dictionary’s job: to record how language is being used, irregardless of how we want it to be used.
Yes, it hurt me to say ‘irregardless’ even more than it hurt you to hear it. But if you spend any time with the dictionary, you see how the English language is riddled with words which don’t make logical sense, that have substantially altered or even reversed their meanings over time, that logically shouldn’t exist at all, but do, because people use them.
So you can’t expect the dictionary to present a perfect form of language, because language is imperfect. Moreover, you can’t expect the dictionary to present YOUR perfect form of language.
KORY STAMPER: You get people who are angry that the word ‘fold’ exists.
HZ: Fold? F-O-L-D? What's so offensive about 'fold'?
KORY STAMPER: I don't know. But it's offensive enough that I have someone who emails me regularly asking me to remove it from the dictionary.
HZ: You can’t get a word removed from a dictionary because you don’t like it. Even if you don’t like it for legitimate reasons.
KORY STAMPER: A lot of times you will hear from people who will find a word that is now offensive but has significant historical use that's not offensive. The word that immediately comes to mind for me is 'retarded', which when it first entered was a medical term and was a medical term for a very long time and now is considered offensive. And people just want the word removed or they want you to say that the whole entry is offensive, when in fact it's not quite that simple, if you're giving a broad view of the language. And I think that's hard, especially whenwords hurt, people want the dictionary to sort of swoop in and say, “This word is terrible, and no one should use it.” And even if I feel that way, I still have to describe what the medical use of that word is. And I still have to describe what the offensive use of that word is. And I have to do that accurately and that's painful. You're faced with the painful history of human reality, when you write dictionaries.
HZ: And the present of human reality being enshrined in the dictionary is too painful for some.
KORY STAMPER: So in 2003 Merriam-Webster put out a new edition of our dictionary, the Collegiate Dictionary, and in that dictionary we included a sense that the word 'marriage' that covered the uses of marriage to refer to gay or same sex marriage. And this went unnoticed for a number of years.
HZ: Until 2009.
KORY STAMPER: Someone, a very conservative blogger, had stumbled upon it and he happened to have a radio show and he encouraged his listeners to write in. And they read the entry and felt that we were commenting on the thing marriage and not the word marriage, because they felt that we were legislating from the book. And it just started snowballing from there.
HZ: When people contact Merriam-Webster, the lexicographers are obliged to respond to every message.
KORY STAMPER: So, I got - I think by the time it was said and done - it was something like 4000 emails in a three week span from people who were furious, absolutely furious that we had entered this, that we were telling them what marriage was; Noah Webster is turning in his grave... And so we spent time responding to people and saying: this is what the dictionary does; this is what this entry means; this use of marriage has been used by opponents of gay marriage and proponents of gay marriage; this is how everyone talks about this particular meaning... It escalated. I received some death threats. Not to me personally, but, you know, the company, and it was just very very intense. And in that too we also heard from gay and lesbian and bisexual people who responded and said, "Thank you; this is important. Now I can show that my parents or my friends or whoever my relationship is valid in the eyes of the dictionary." So it was really fascinating - and hard, because of course people are responding to that entry as if the dictionary is an authority on life. And we're not! We handle words. And that's about all we can do. It is just the words.
HZ: Kory Stamper’s book Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries is out now, and it is a fantastically entertaining and informative account of how lexicography works, what dictionaries are for, and how language really functions. It’s the perfect book for you lot. And yes, there’s a whole chapter in defence of ‘irregardless’.
This episode is sponsored by Squarespace, those longstanding supporters of podcasts, and of people like you getting your ideas out there online. Stop gestating and start hatching your business, gallery, portfolio, online store, blog, even your podcast. For a free trial and a 10% discount off your first purchase, visit squarespace.com/allusion.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best podcasts around. If you like audio fiction, especially audio fiction that is experimental, surprising, and beautifully produced, try The Truth. It’s movies, for your ears. There’s nothing else quite like it out there. Hear The Truth, and all the Radiotopia shows, at radiotopia.fm. And visit radiotopia.fm/live to obtain tickets for our west coast tour in May.
Radiotopia is possible thanks to the support of the Knight Foundation and you listeners. Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
remuage, noun: the periodic turning or shaking of bottled wine, especially champagne, to move sediment towards the cork.
Try using it in an email today.
There’ll be a slightly longer gap between episodes before the next one - later this month I’ll be speaking at the TED conference, which takes up a whole week, and I also need extra time to panic. But in the meantime, you could catch up on some of the other dictionary-related episodes of The Allusionist: Mountweazel, about a cunning ruse to catch out people ripping off your dictionary; Word of the Day, about how dictionary.com chooses their word of the day; and Fix part I, about how many of the supposed rules of English were made up by a handful of pedants.
Also I dealt with the history of ‘on fleek’ in my other podcast, Answer Me This, quite recently - episode 339. Personally, I have never used it without quotation marks. Any slang coined in my lifetime, I feel too old to be allowed to use.
The next new episode of the Allusionist will be out on 5 May, at theallusionist.org.