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  • When you spend all day in English and everything around you is words, you know,

  • I imagine it's like being a podiatrist where like the whole world

  • is feet.

  • My name is Kory Stamper.

  • I'm an associate editor at Merriam Webster, where I write dictionary definitions,

  • and my new book is calledWord by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.”

  • For a while, people would ask what I did and I would just say I work in publishing, because

  • the minute I said, “Oh, I write dictionaries,” the first two things out of their mouth were,

  • "Oh that's so cool," and, "Oh my God, I better watch what I say around you."

  • Which was so sad to me because that's not my job.

  • My job isn't to police what people say, or how people talk, or things that people

  • write even.

  • My job is to record the language and not impose some sort of order on it.

  • I kept my practice defining slips.

  • So, every definer, you practice writing dictionary definitions.

  • There is one in here that I kept because it was the only definition the director of defining

  • said, “Oh, that's pretty good,” and didn't mark up.

  • And that isbird strike”, which I defined as a collision in which a bird or flock of

  • birds hits the engine of an aircraft.

  • The editorial floor is incredibly quiet.

  • Not just really quiet, but sort of sepulchrally quiet.

  • And you also know that when people are looking up, if you happen to be walking by someone's

  • cubicle and they're looking up and staring at nothing, you know that you absolutely should

  • not interrupt them.

  • So there's two different processes that go behind it.

  • The first is a daily thing, and that's called reading and marking.

  • And that's where editors spend some time every day basically reading sources.

  • And you're reading sources to find new or interesting vocabulary.

  • The second part is defining.

  • So when we revise a dictionary, we go through it A to Z,

  • and you take all the instances for the word you're looking up.You're matching up the

  • word and its contextual use with the existing dictionary definition.

  • Sprachgefühl is a German word that we borrowed into English.

  • It's a word that refers to the feeling for language.

  • You have to be able to look at a sentence and know that "planting out the lettuce" is

  • different from "planting information."

  • It's really sort of where you can look at the warp and weft of language and read it.

  • So for a word to get into the dictionary, it needs to meet three basic criteria.

  • The first criteria is widespread use.

  • If something's used in the Wall Street Journal and Vibe, then you figure that's pretty

  • widespread use.

  • The second one is it needs to have a shelf life.

  • Once words get into the dictionary, they tend to stay in dictionaries.

  • The shelf life of a word really depends.

  • There are other words that have very very little use for a lot of time and then suddenly

  • have tons of use.

  • The indian word korma is a great example.

  • It first was used in English back in the 1830s or 1840s, and it had very very very little

  • use, really until the 1990s when people started eating lots of Indian food.

  • So korma's a more recent addition to the dictionary, even though it's almost 200

  • years old at this point.

  • The third criteria is a word has to have meaningful usewhich means it has to have a meaning.

  • The example I trot out is antidisestablishmentarianism

  • Freddy, can you spell antidisestablishmentarianism?”

  • Uh...no.”

  • which most people know as a long word, but it doesn't get used much in print.

  • It gets used as an example of a long word.

  • Antidisestablishmentarianism.”

  • [Laughter from crowd] You want to make sure that the word has a

  • meaning and is not just an example of letters smushed together.

  • People think of English as something that needs to be defended.

  • It's this beautiful pristine tower...actually it's much more like a child.

  • It's an organic, living thing.

  • You bring English into being, and then the minute that it gains gross motor skills, it

  • goes right where you don't want it to go.

  • So there are two main approaches to language.

  • One is prescriptivism, one is descriptivism.

  • Prescriptivism essentially promotes the best practices of English.

  • Prescriptivism is, by its nature, exclusionary.

  • Descriptivism on the other hand, as an approach to language, it follows where language goes.

  • Dictionaries exist on more of the descriptivist end of the spectrum.

  • Dictionaries record language as it is used, not as you think it should be used.

  • Irregardless.”

  • Not a word.”

  • Well, irregardless of that.”

  • Irregardless is a word that people have a specific and vehement hatred for.

  • Irregardless, really for about 150, 175 years has been pegged as being uneducated, hickish,

  • representative of people who don't speak English very well.

  • It's also entered into dictionaries, which just infuriates people.

  • It does me no good as a lexicographer to enter irregardless into the dictionary if I don't

  • tell you that when you use it, people are going to think you're a moron.

  • So all dictionaries are descriptivist and prescriptivist.

  • It's too dangerous.”

  • What is the drama with decimate?

  • With the soul sword activated, Valentine could decimate the entire downworld.”

  • It is a favorite of people called etymological fallicists, who believe that modern words

  • should only mean what they meant in their origin language.

  • Decimate comes from a Latin verb that means to select and kill one tenth of.

  • You just don't really need a word that refers to selecting and killing one tenth of all

  • that often.

  • So decimate gained what's called an extended sense, which means that people began using

  • it to refer to widespread devastation, or killing of a bunch of people.

  • They also will ignore things, like that the word stew used to mean whorehouse.

  • Nobody says, “I hate that we call this chunky soup stew, stew should only be used to refer

  • to a whorehouse.”

  • They want English to be pure.

  • And in their minds, purity means that you stick to the root word as closely as you can.

  • And that's fine, except that's just not how English works.

  • People think of English as this monolithic thing, but it's really not, it's much more

  • like a river.

  • Every dialect of English is its own current.

  • And all of these currents come together to make this fairly cohesive looking ribbon of

  • water.

  • But every one of those is integral to the direction of English.

  • Controlling water's pretty difficult.

  • If you say, well, you know, “Youth slang really is stupid, and there's no point in

  • paying attention to it,” you're actually stopping this really vital way that new words

  • come into English.

  • If you say business jargon is ugly and stupid, and no one should ever use business jargon,

  • I might agree with you, but that's also another important part of how words come into

  • English, and that's an important way that words are created.

  • This idea of English being a river really sort of celebrates that every single part

  • of the language is important for the whole.

  • It's all part of the same thing, you need all of it for it to survive.

  • I am so happy to explain what those dots in the middle of the words are.

  • Those dots in the middle of the words are not marking syllables.

  • What they are is for people who have to break a word.

  • So the whole word won't fit on a line, so they have to find a place to put the hyphen

  • and put the rest of the word.

  • If you walk away and that's all you remember of this, you will make every dictionary editor

  • the happiest person in the world.

When you spend all day in English and everything around you is words, you know,

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A2 US Vox dictionary language decimate people stew

How a dictionary writer defines English

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    Samuel posted on 2018/03/23
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