Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper is a self-proclaimed "word nerd of the first order" and the author of Word by Word: The Secret Life Of Dictionaries, which came out last month. She spent part of this afternoon (April 20, 2017) in a Reddit AMA, dishing about her favorite definitions, words she wishes we had in English, how the internet is changing language, and the biggest mistake she's seen get into the dictionary.
1. SHE HAS A FAVORITE DEFINITION.
Asked her favorite dictionary definition, Stamper replied “I love the absurdity of the [Webster's Third New International’s] definition for ‘fishstick,’ which was ‘a stick of fish.’ Nope, but points for trying!”
And she has a runner-up: “I also love the definition for ‘gardyloo’: ‘used as a warning shout in Scotland when it was customary to throw household slops from upstairs windows.’ That this word exists at all is a triumph.”
2. SHE’D LIKE TO RENAME YOUR LOWER BACK TATTOO.
“I sort of wish that we called a lower-back tattoo by the name that Germans give it (Arschgeweih) instead of the name that we do (tramp stamp). Arschgeweih is far more accurate, anyway: it means ass antlers.”
3. SOMETIMES THERE’S AN INVERSE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE LENGTH OF A WORD AND ITS DEFINITION.
Asked if it’s true that short words often have long dictionary definitions, Stamper said “sometimes”—it depends partly on whether the dictionary is unabridged, in which case people expect more complex entries. But, she noted that the word hotel has a famously long definition in Webster's Third New International, Unabridged. Here it is:
A building of many rooms chiefly for overnight accommodation of transients and several floors served by elevators, usually with a large open street-level lobby containing easy chairs, with a variety of compartments for eating, drinking, dancing, exhibitions, and group meetings (as of salesmen or convention attendants), with shops having both inside and street-side entrances and offering for sale items (as clothes, gifts, candy, theater tickets, travel tickets) of particular interest to a traveler, or providing personal services (as hairdressing, shoe shining), and with telephone booths, writing tables and washrooms freely available.
4. DON’T PLAN A FUNERAL FOR PRINT DICTIONARIES ANYTIME SOON.
“Wikipedia killed off printed encyclopedias,” one participant asked; “can we avoid the same fate for printed dictionaries?” Stamper’s reply: “I hold out a good deal of hope [for the continuance of print]. First, printed dictionaries are way cheaper than printed encyclopedias: most people can scrimp and afford a $25 dictionary ... but few people can afford a $2000 printed encyclopedia set. And though we live in this digitized world, there are plenty of places and people who still prefer print … not all is lost, printwise.”
5. THE DICTIONARY INCLUDED A FAKE ‘GHOST WORD’ FOR MORE THAN A DOZEN YEARS.
In response to a question about the biggest error she’d seen make its way into the dictionary, Stamper linked to a Merriam-Webster video about the “ghost word” dord, which first showed up in the 1934 second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary as meaning “density.” Five years later, an editor realized that dord owed its existence to a misunderstanding of a note from a chemistry consultant who had typed the letters “D or d” on a slip of paper for the dictionary. At the time, the notes the lexicographers consulted while creating their definitions were usually typed with spaces in between the letters (to leave room to show stress and syllable breaks), so someone at the dictionary had misinterpreted that consultant's or in between the D and d as the middle of a word. It wasn’t, but the mistake was only corrected in the 1947 edition of Webster's.
6. YOU CAN STOP WORRYING ABOUT YOUR GRAMMAR AROUND HER.
Asked if she finds that people are scared to talk to her because she’s a “word person,” Kamper replied: “Yes, and it makes me SO VERY SAD. I don't police people's language when we're talking, though I know people assume I am, because I want to pay more attention to what the person is saying instead of how they say it.”
When pressed about whether there’s a particular grammar mistake that drives her nuts, Stamper offered this: “Most of the typical ‘grammar mistakes’ that people froth and rage over aren't actually mistakes: they are the expressed and canonized opinions of dudes of yore who found one particular use or word inelegant. Bombast sells, so these guys would simply say that XYZ was wrong—and because no one likes to be wrong, everyone parroted the advice. But most of those opinions go against how the language is actually used, and by some pretty decent writers, too: Shakespeare, Pope, Dryden, a smattering of Brontes, etc. And what's considered right is always changing.”
7. SPELLING THINGS ALOUD IS HER ‘SECRET SHAME.’
Stamper speaks multiple languages—English, Latin, German, Old English, Old Norse, Middle English, among others—but don’t ask her to spell things aloud. Asked what she’s learned about herself from working at a dictionary, she replied: “I've also learned that I can't spell aloud, because now I work with people who help judge spelling bees. There it is: my secret shame.”
Definitely don’t ask her to spell the word “achieve,” whose letters, she reports, her brain has pushed aside to make room for more jokes about Samuel Johnson.
8. SHE FELL IN LOVE WITH WORDS PARTLY THANKS TO OLD NORSE.
“I've always been in love with words to a certain degree,” Stamper explains. But, she says, “It was really Old Norse and Old English that started up the love affair in earnest … I talk about it at length in the first chapter of the book, helpfully titled "Hrafnkell: On Falling in Love."
9. THE DIGITAL WORLD IS SPEEDING UP THE TRANSMISSION OF NEW WORDS.
Asked how “being connected online to the whole world is changing English,” Stamper said, “I think that the whole online shebang shows us more of English more quickly. It's much easier to transmit global English or words from marginalized dialects like African American Vernacular English to a broader audience online than it was in print. Think of woke, which was used mostly in AAVE [African American Vernacular English] back to the 1960s, but which Twitter and Snapchat have spread to other speaking communities.”
10. SHE LOVES ‘KUMMERSPECK’ TOO.
The German word kummerspeck is one of our favorites around the mental_floss offices, and Stamper loves it too. Here’s how she defines it: “I absolutely love the German word ‘Kummerspeck,’ which refers to the fat you gain from overeating and literally translates to ‘grief bacon.’”