I just finished Kory Stamper’s fabulous book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. Stamper is a lexicographer, a person who writes new definitions or revises old ones for Merriam-Webster Dictionaires. I thoroughly enjoyed Stamper’s wit and logical explanations on how she and the other MW editors come up with definitions. It boggles my mind the agony they sometimes go through and all the research that goes into getting each nuance of a word’s definition exactly right.
Even more important, though, my opinions on certain words and whether they should be in the dictionary changed, too. I know I’m not alone in eschewing words like “irregardless,” “supposably,” and “disorientated,” to name a few, but now that I’ve read Stamper’s explanation for why they are in the dictionary, I realize I’ve been wrong. As Stamper points out, contrary to popular belief, it is not the dictionary’s (and therefore the lexicographer’s) job to police the English language and leave out words that aren’t considered educated or standard usage. Rather, it is the lexicographer’s job to observe the language and include words that are gaining widespread use, whether some people believe it’s correct or not. Lexicographers are essentially reporters of trends in our English language. It is not their job to determine if a word is right or wrong.
Stamper, of course, gives a lengthy explanation on this, and I, who used to consider myself a staunch purist (I even remember when “all right” was only supposed to be two words and scoffed every time I saw it as “alright”) have totally changed my tune. I even understand why many people say, and sometimes even spell, “nucular” instead of “nuclear” now, and it’s not an indication of lack of intelligence or a sign of being a country bumpkin or redneck. Read what she says. I swear you’ll change your tune, too.
I think the point Stamper is trying to make is that if millions of people are using the incorrect form of a word, and it is showing up in print and other media as well, is it really incorrect? If we look down on someone who says “nucular,” who is really the one in the dark? English is an ever-changing language, much to many purists’ chagrin. No matter how much we think “nuclear” is correct, “nucular” is an up-and-comer. In another hundred years, maybe it will be considered standard, and people who say “nuclear” will be considered dumb for saying it. As Stamper says, “Standard English as it is presented by grammarians and pedants is a dialect that is based on a mostly fictional, static, and Platonic ideal of usage.”
I’ve realized that my prejudice against “alright” is pretty ridiculous, even though the first time I saw it in my beloved Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, I wanted to scream. Granted, they do say it isn’t as common and is less formal in use, but they also point out it has been around as long as “all right.” And why wouldn’t we spell it as one word? We already have (as I just used) “already” and “altogether.” “Alright” actually makes perfect sense. I just hated seeing it because, to me, it was the mark of an amateur, someone who didn’t really know one of the essential tools of writing, proper grammar. But maybe I was the amateur. Or maybe I just wanted to show off my knowledge and lord it over those whom I deemed ignorant. Maybe I was a snob.
Stamper’s book also gives several histories of certain words that are fascinating, along with stories of answering correspondence (who knew you could write to the dictionary and get a reply?) and even controversies over certain words and definitions. Her book is also kind of a history of dictionaries that I found absorbing. She has managed to turn what most would consider a boring, dry subject into something delightful that, at times, had me laughing out loud.
Stamper has done what many an underappreciated employee has longed for: she’s shown us what unsung heroes lexicographers are and how hard they work (for a pretty meager salary), even though, to most people, they will forever be invisible. After reading her book and seeing how imperative an experienced lexicographer is to creating an invaluable tome such as the dictionary, I was horrified when, near the end, she said Merriam-Webster had to lay off many of their lexicographers with decades of experience because of the changing market and the transition from paper to digital.
I felt guilty for using MW’s free online dictionary and immediately bought the paid version of the app. I know my contribution will be a drop in the bucket, but now that I know the grueling and meticulous work that goes into producing a dictionary, I want to do everything I can to make sure the lexicographers are able to continue their essential work. Any lover of writing, grammar, and/or fellow word snob should want to, too.