A Day in the Life of a Dictionary Editor

Gene Smirnov
Gene Smirnov / Gene Smirnov

As told to Jen Doll

As a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster, Kory Stamper defines new words (a personal favorite? mosh) and updates old ones. She explains what it takes to become a word, why angry letters are also inspiring, and how a day in the life of a dictionary editor includes both death threats and marriage proposals. 

1. Becoming a lexicographer was completely an accident.
It’s not a job your high school guidance counselor has a folder on. I stumbled across a want ad for an editorial assistant. I got called for the interview and found out it was for Merriam-Webster. I thought, Oh, I was a nerdy kid, sure, I could do that. Within a couple of months, I realized this was exactly what I needed to do.

2. My job is to define new words and update old ones.
Part of that means constantly collecting evidence of how words are used in print and online and adding that to a big database, which we call the citations file. From there, I can analyze whether each meaning we’ve collected for a word—say, green—is already covered by an existing definition, if that existing definition needs to be broadened or narrowed, or if we need to write a new definition. It’s a giant matching game.

3. People think there’s a celebration for every new word ...
... but some days I might draft seven new entries.

4. When I first started, I thought I’d keep a list of words I wrote new entries for.
I gave up after a year and a 50-page-long list. At this point, when people ask how many words I’ve entered, I can’t tell them. I have probably looked at every single entry in all of our dictionaries.

5. I do have a handful of words I give people when they ask “What words have you defined that you’re proud of?”
I totally revised the entry for God in the Unabridged. It had been written in the mid-’50s. There was no sense that covered Greek or Roman gods of mythology, or any of the incidental uses of God, like OMG, or God help you.

6. To be a new entry, a word must meet three criteria.
First, widespread use. If it only appears in Wine Spectator, it’s not a great candidate. Second, it has to have sustained usage over a certain period of time (usually years). People think of the dictionary as being either the gatekeeper or the bleeding edge, but it’s neither. By the time a word is in a dictionary, most people have at least seen it. Third, it has to have a meaning. There are words without a formal meaning that get used a lot, like antidisestablishmentarianism. It’s used as an example of a long word, but it doesn’t have a lexical definition.

7. The gatekeepers are the editors.
Maybe I’m going to let an ugh come through, but not an ew, for example.

8. Most words don’t enter the language in a smooth, upward motion.
You’ll get spikes—words will drop out, then spike again. There’s a jagged upward trend for most words. AIDS, I think, we entered within a year of its first use. It was clear it was not going away anytime soon.

9. Some words take forever to fully enter the language.
The first written use of the word korma, for the Indian dish, was in the 1830s or so. It didn’t enter the language until the late 1990s. Now it shows up on Indian menus. It’s sort of at the halfway point.

10. I’ve been at this job for almost 17 years.
That’s kind of crazy in this day and age, but it doesn’t get boring. You must have a threshold for the same work over and over again, but you can find things that are new and fresh and interesting.

11. I’ve gotten marriage proposals, and also death threats.
Because language is universal, people feel very strongly about it. They have no problem going from “I don’t like this word or what it represents” to “I don’t like the dictionary” to “I don’t like the editor.” One year, Stephen Colbert noticed we had entered a sense of marriage that covered same-sex marriage. The hate mail came in fast and furious.

12. Even when people get angry, it’s inspiring.
They’re engaging with language, and I can help them do that.