Kory Stamper, lexicographer and blogger for Merriam-Webster, began her crackling keynote address for the ACES 2016 banquet with the impromptu institution of the farcical Academy of English. What followed was a combination of cat memes, jokes about French and impeccably-timed GIFs that constituted a lively discussion of open-mindedness in editing.
Stamper’s Academy introduced hard-and-fast rules about contested facets of the English language, which Stamper herself declared “inconsistent and weird.” Singular they entered the fray first, replacing more than just plural he/she/it, but singular he/she/it as well, erasing any and all gendered confusion. She lifted her arms in autocratic glee as the room applauded her conclusion.
All jokes aside, Stamper addressed how editors and copy editors have been lamenting the fall of the English language for years, all the way back to the 11th century. She noted that sometimes “editing feels like you’re fighting linguistic entropy,” but left an important reminder that editing is not a war with English. It’s a conversation, it’s clarity and it’s inclusivity.
The Academy’s final verdict before its sudden dissolution was simply to do no harm in editing. This includes more that refraining from “harming” the language, but from harming the readers as well. “Just like with good writing, good editing opens space in a piece for every reader to enter in. On the other side of your piece are readers, people just like you, for whom words matter.”
In advance of her address, we took a moment to talk with Stamper about the power of editors and editing, our rapidly changing language, and the truth about dictionaries.
Q: When do you decide that a word has changed enough to merit an updated definition? Words like “notorious” seem to be changing to a “cooler” connotation among younger generations, but the change still isn’t accepted wholesale. What’s the tipping point?
Stamper: Generally, we look for three markers when we’re updating a new word or entering a new meaning of an old word. You look first for widespread usage. So, this new sense of “notorious,” I know exactly where that came from: that’s Notorious B.I.G.. That use would need to be used in widespread general prose. At this point it would probably only show up in places like Entertainment Weekly, Vibe and college newspapers. People who are of that particular demographic, what they read, what they write. Once you start seeing it in Sunset Magazine, and Gourmet, and the Wall Street Journal, then you can — you want to make sure that this one has fully entered the language, that it’s common enough that when you enter it, 98 percent of the people who read it aren’t going to think “what the hell is that?”
The next one is sustained use, so you want to make sure that a word is going to stick around. That’s a tricky thing to determine. There are some words, the minute they come into the language, you know they’re not going to leave. SARS and AIDS are two great examples; within just a couple of years of each of those appearing, we had them in the dictionary.
And the third one is meaningful use. You want a word to actually be used with a meaning and not just be a nonsense word. And even some things that people call nonsense words have some kind of linguistic function or meaning. So um, or er, or the discourse particle like have meaning, even if it’s just as a function.
Once a word or a new meaning hits those three criteria, then you can enter it. And then it really is sort of that judgment call. You base some of that on the evidence you have in front of you and the research that you do. But sometimes it’s just time. With generational terms like the change in “notorious,” that’s actually a really subtle change, so that might take longer to show up clearly in print. You just lean into it, keep using it that way.
Q: You mentioned in your panel that editors have the power to affect change in language.
Stamper: Most people, and certainly editors, grow up with this idea that dictionaries are the places where language is fixed or made official, so people will talk about “it’s now a REAL word” once it’s entered into a dictionary. But dictionaries follow common usage, and primarily we base all of our entries on written, edited English prose. So really, the people who are making the decisions about what kinds of new words eventually get into the dictionary and how they’re styled, those are all editors and writers. As lexicographers, it would be a huge conflict of interest for us to start setting rules about what words are “real” and what words aren’t real and what they’re “supposed” to mean as opposed to how people actually use them.
Q: What do you think is important for copy editors to understand about the way language changes?
Stamper: Copy editors often feel like English is coming apart at the seams and we need to impose order. We need to impose standards. You hear that all the time, maintain standards and impose standards, impose consistency. I know some people who really feel like were it not for editors and style guides, the language would totally devolve into grunts and gestures. But I think what’s important for copy editors to know is that they can help shape language.
Language will move forward, because the other big chunk of where the power in shaping language lies is with their readers. There’s this tension of — if you have an editorial standard that you’re maintaining long after your readers really don’t care, then what’s the profit in maintaining that standard? A lot of the complaints that people get when they make a style change sort of subtly influence what they think of English. Because the complaints tend to be that you’re ruining the language. Always. Doesn’t matter what you say, what you do, you’re always ruining the language. And I think we really believe that unless we somehow bind it together, the language is going to fall apart.
I would encourage editors to not think of language as entropy. It’s not entropy. There’s not one consistent pattern in how it moves forward and evolves, and there are ways that it evolves that linguists and lexicographers can’t track. Most compounds that begin life as hyphenated compounds eventually become closed compounds. And you don’t know when that will happen, but eventually it happens. That change is not the language dying, it’s one of the natural linguistic paths that language takes.
Q: How is the shift toward digital affecting language?
Stamper: The one thing that it is clearly doing is making language change, not faster, but more transparent. “On fleek” is a great example. Peaches Monroee, in April or May of 2015, does this video where she says “on fleek,” and by November more people are searching Google for “on fleek” than they are searching ISIS or Syria. With the internet you can track how quickly language spreads, which gives people this idea that language is changing faster. We can’t know. Technology has always affected how language has spread, back to the printing press, to the typewriter, to the telegraph. Technology makes language change more apparent.
Obviously, the way that editing happens online is changing how lexicography happens, too. Because, now, if a story goes up and there is an alternate spelling of a word that might be regional but is in one version, and then the afternoon copy desk comes in and goes nope, that’s not house style, and they change it back ... OK, so what’s the citation? What was the final use? And there’s a lot of wrangling with that. If that’s an editorial decision that is made, how do you, as a lexicographer, interact with that? I also think technology makes it easier for us to find language, too. Now there’s way more stuff to keep up with, but it’s really helpful on the other hand because we want to be able to see that.
Q: What are the greatest challenges Merriam-Webster is facing and what are the greatest joys of the job?
Stamper: There’s way more work than there are lexicographers. And it’s always been that way, but now there’s a paradigm shift in how dictionaries are being written. We now look more at online sources than we do print sources because that’s just where the language is moving. And you can look at online sources, but a lot of the bigger collections of online sources are not actually written for lexicographers. And on the business end of it, just like for newspapers and other publications, it’s a challenge. Like, how do you make money doing this? How do you maintain readership? How do you pay the bills? Suddenly we have to think more about that. So maybe we do more general interest articles about language, because that brings people to the website.
The biggest joys are still ... language is such an amazing thing. The thing that keeps you coming back is that English is seeing a new word take hold or new meaning of an old word take hold or piecing together where and why and how is so fascinating because it tells you so much about people.