Kory Stamper’s great passion in life is something most of us have lovingly bastardized with 😀 use: the English language. She’s a word nerd who defines for a living. As an editor at Merriam-Webster dictionary, Stamper is on the frontlines of how we think about the English language. In her new book, Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, she spins various adventures in lexicography with exuberance and wit to spare. Unlike what you might think about the dictionary, Stamper is out to prove that language and word usage don’t have to be super-rigid. You can use “literally” in all kinds of ways, and there are many plural of octopus.
After assisting with some Star Wars plural questions, Inverse recently caught up with Kory Stamper where she revealed how we can all unlearn what we’ve learned about dictionaries.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about dictionaries?
I tell people I write dictionaries for a living and their response is “Aren’t they already written?” “Haven’t we defined all the words?” This is an assumption people make because of this idea that dictionaries aren’t a human document. People think they can’t change. The belief is dictionaries are just there. People assume dictionaries just spontaneously generated from a pile of wet newspapers in the 1850s.
If anyone can anyone make a dictionary, what are dictionaries for?
When you think of things like Urban Dictionary or any number of open-sourced dictionaries, those can get discounted, oftentimes for good reason, oftentimes not. But they reason they get disconnected is almost always because they are human. It’s because of this idea that “anybody can go in can do it.” Urban Dictionary isn’t “bad” in and of itself. It just needs a lexicographer to go through it and put everything in comprehensible language. Sure, make up words and record it somewhere! That’s great!
Why do people love correcting people on proper usage even when they’re wrong? For example, telling people they’re using the word “literally” wrong is pretty popular …
I think beliefs get entrenched because nobody wants to look dumb. Most rules start with authority figures. Teachers, parents, professors saying “you shouldn’t use literally to mean figuratively” which has that sort of implicit “aren’t you a moron” vibe to it. We don’t want to look dumb and we want to look smarter than the person next to us. We hold onto these rules out of fear. But on another level, people just like rules. English is a mess. I love it. It’s a great mess. It’s not a tidy language. I can’t explain why in some instances we start a question with ‘why’ and other circumstances we say, “how come?”
Let’s talk “On Fleek,” which sprang from a Vine by Peaches Monroee: How are words being spread digitally?
Language isn’t being created or changing faster, but our mode of communication is quicker that it used to be. Twitter and Facebook are like what we did in 8th grade, passing notes back and forth with each other. In 8th grade, nobody looks at those notes except me and my friend and maybe a few mean girls who steal the notes. They weren’t public. They aren’t accessible by everybody on the “platform,” because no one had access to the paper! So the social networks and the new ways we communicate fit into this new space between private correspondence and public correspondence. Which means, something like “on fleek” was almost entirely internet-bound.
In terms of the future of words and the future of English, that’s a sucker’s game to play. No one really knows! But here are the indisputable facts: More of the way we communicate is online. More of the ways we reach out to people are in writing. So, in terms of the future of English, I think in some ways we’re going to see a lot more of the language.
How does the popularity of certain words get amplified in usage by the internet?
Thirty years ago, if a word appeared in The New York Times, you knew it had been looked at by the copy desk; and then it had to be looked at by proof; and then it had to be looked at by layout. By the time things made it into print, they had sort of been vetted already by the community of writing or reading. And now, with the internet, that doesn’t happen. Any slob like me can post a blog post. And that’s awesome because we do see these trends a lot faster. But it also shows us how mercurial the language is. “On Fleek” is a great example. It’s only a few years old [Ed. Note: On Fleek was born June 21, 2014], but I don’t really see it online anymore. It’s starting to drop out of use. And that’s how language generally works, words that are overnight on fire, and then burn out quick. As a lexicographer, you’re tracking all of those, but do we consider “On Fleek” to have sustained use?
If it had sustained use, we could we put “On Fleek” in the dictionary right now. If we don’t see as much use, we can suppress that entry. That’s a keystroke now. That’s not going through the page proofs, and changing the page proofs and having to issue a new printing and so on.
What’s the future of dictionaries?
In terms of what dictionaries are going to look like in the future, I’m not sure. But, they’ll have to be agile and look at language in a different way. Most people don’t realize language changes. Which is fine. They don’t have to believe language changes in order for it to be true. It will change.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries is out now from Pantheon Books.