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I'm Kory Stamper, lexicographer at Merriam-Webster and author of WORD BY WORD. Ask me anything!

Hey, Reddit! I'm Kory, a writer and editor of English-language dictionaries for Merriam-Webster, the author of "Word by Word: The Secret Life Of Dictionaries" (called by Publishers Weekly "occasionally profane"), and a word nerd of the first order. My writing has appeared in the NYTimes, The Guardian, and on Slate.com, and I also write for Merriam-Webster.com. You might see my face talking at you on M-W.com as well: I do videos for them on grammar, etymology & usage. I have a blog, like the rest of the universe: www.harmlessdrudgery.com.

LET'S DO THIS, REDDIT: https://twitter.com/KoryStamper/status/854803581505089536

UPDATE: ALL Y'ALL, your questions have been great and amazing and more than I can answer in one hour. I've hung in a bit past 3:00pm ET, but need to head out to pick up one of my progeny. Thanks again! (Also sorry there's no giant picture of my face above this, but I kind of liked being a giant empty space on the Internet.)

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What's a new word you've tried and failed to get added to the MW dictionary?

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JAWN. I have tried to get "jawn" into the dictionary and have failed miserably.

Admittedly, it probably shouldn't be entered yet: it doesn't quite have the widespread use it needs. It's Philly slang for "thing" or "person" or "situation," and it's marvelous, and by the time it gets into the dictionary Philadelphia will be over it.

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Hi, Kory, what's the weirdest Finnish or German or Icelandic word you can think of?

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I don't know that it's weird, per se, but I absolutely love the German word "Kummerspeck," which refers to the fat you gain from overeating and literally translates to "grief bacon." In Icelandic, there's the word "gluggaveður" that refers to weather that is lovely to look at but is terrible to be outside in. And Finnish...there's always one of my favorite swears: "paskan marjat," which literally means "shit berries."

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Hi, Kory, what's the weirdest Finnish or German or Icelandic word you can think of?

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That's me, deleting 85 identical responses because I'm on old tech. HI, I AM TECHNOLOGICALLY CAPABLE AND EVERYTHING.

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Hi, Kory. What word or phrase from another language do you wish existed in English?

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I sort of wish that we called a lower-back tattoo by the name that German's give it ("Arschgeweih") instead of the name that we do ("tramp stamp"). Arschgeweih is far more accurate, anyway: it means "ass antlers."

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When did you fall in love with words? Was there any specific imeptus, or have you always been a word nerd?

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I've always been in love with words to a certain degree: I used to love to roll them around in my mouth, and when I was a dopey and hopelessly awkward teen, I used them to my advantage. (TRUFAX: I was voted "Most Sarcastic" in my senior class. There was no trophy, obvi.)

It was really Old Norse and Old English that started up the love affair in earnest, though. I talk about it at length in the first chapter of the book, helpfully titled "Hrafnkell: On Falling in Love."

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Hi! MW's Twitter is great, and often bitingly sarcastic re: the current administration. Is the editor's room a pretty political place? If so, is there a general consensus (because it seems so)? Thanks!

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It's actually one of the most apolitical places you'll likely walk into, because we have to try to pull politics and words apart. Though I am talking out of both sides of my mouth: in a recent NYT op-ed, I argue that stating that a word has an objective meaning is, in fact, political.

Mostly, we all sit very quietly and don't talk about anything.

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Hi! What's your favorite definition?

Bonus question: I love the pictures in my hard copy of Webster's third. What's your favorite picture? I'll post a screen shot in the comments (if you promise not to DMCA it).

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I love the absurdity of the Third's definition for "fishstick," which was "a stick of fish." Nope, but points for trying! 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.

PICTURES! Good question! I did think it was pretty hysterical to find, at the entry for "foundation" in the Third, a picture of ladies' underwear.

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What's the grammar mistake that drives you crazy the most?

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So, here's the thing: most people assume that I am a grammando of the highest order, or that I'm the sort of person who walks around with a Sharpie in my pocket ready to correct bad apostrophization and such. But the longer I've been doing this job, the less I find that "grammar mistakes" bother me.

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. Did you know, at one point, that people got their knickers in a twist over the present progressive ("The house is being built")? It was NEW and WRONG and INELEGANT and should be "the house is building." Nowadays, we look at that and think that the complainant is off their twig, because seriously, "the house is building"?? And so it goes, down the ages. So I look a little more kindly on things that people consider mistakes, because they often aren't.

Tl;dr: there aren't really any mistakes that drive me crazy, SAWREE.

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Hi Kory! How do you think being connected online to the whole world is changing English? What are the biggest changes? New loan words? New syntax? New hybrid dialects?

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Ooof, that's a big topic. Quickly: 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 back to the 1960s, but which Twitter and Snapchat have spread to other speaking communities.

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Do you find people often scared/self-conscious to talk with you since you're a "word person"?

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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. I personally think correcting people's English mid-sentence is arrant asshattery (unless you are a language arts teacher and that person is your student and you are in class).

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Which languages do you know? Going on from 'can understand and speak' to 'know a few words'.

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In order of understanding: English, Latin, German, Old English, Old Norse, Middle English, Middle High German, Attic and a little Koine Greek, French (reading only), Spanish (reading only), Finnish.

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In an interview you described the difference between formal written English and spoken English. Would online posts (in English) be considered a hybrid of these two or rather an offshoot of spoken English?

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Good question! I think that the English used in social media posts really is sort of a hybrid. It's clearly written--you can see that in uses of abbreviations like "af"--but it has the cadence, grammar, and the less formal vocabulary of spoken English. It sits in this weird space between public writing, which is usually edited and uses mroe formal constructions, and private writing, which is not edited and which uses informal constructions.

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Upvoted because it's nice to see that even lexicographers occasionally post things like "mroe".

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Ha! Not even mad.

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Kory Stamper

Make Pros Try or Typos Marker

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Well, I can't compete with that.

I frankly like the tortured spoonerism of my name, Sorry Camper.

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I'm sorry for my possible weird English. English is only my third language, after Dutch (mother tongue) and German. But hey, how is your Dutch anyway?

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My Dutch is HARRIBLE, sorry! I won't even attempt it.

I do not have a big history of English in my pocket, fortunately, but I have something similar: there's lots of historical information about words in dictionary entries. So some of that information comes from there. But lots of it comes from reading old books about language. Did you know that someone wrote a book in defense of the singular second-person pronoun "thou"? They did. A book. On "thou." Humanity is amazing.

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Is there a bit of an inverse relationship between how long a word is and how long the definition for that word is?

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Sometimes. Short words can have long entries because they have a wide variety of uses (think of "get" or "go"), but not all long words have short entries.

Also depends on the dictionary the word is in. For our Webster's Third New International, Unabridged, there were some insanely long definitions for words like "oxygen" and "hotel" and "heart"--not because the words have a wide variety of uses and therefore have complex meanings, but because it was an unabridged dictionary, and people expect an inordinate amount of information in them.

Here's the now infamous definition for "hotel" from the Third: 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

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Hi Kory! I'm curious as to what you have learned about yourself by doing this work. Anything enlightening? Anything surprise you?

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I've learned that I'm not as introverted as I thought I was: that while I still prefer to be by myself with a book 90% of the time, that complete solitude makes me a little...deranged. Though I hear from Fellow Humans that this is a normal response to excessive solitude.

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.

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Great to see you doing an AMA here on Reddit. And I'm delighted to see you are doing a pretty extensive book tour -- which leads me to a question: is Pantheon paying for that book tour, or is that all on your own? These days most authors have to support their own book tour (even authors who make it onto Fresh Air -- congrats!), and I was curious if you had to do that, or were able to get the publisher to help out on travel/lodging etc.?

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Pantheon has definitely helped out financially (and they've been awesome at booking events and such--much better than I am). But the standard is true for me as well: I'm shelling out some dinero to do a more extensive tour. I'm really lucky that I can, and I'm more than happy to. (Please buy 10 copies of my book, kthx.)

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What's the most obscure (or unique) language you've seen a word traced back to? Have you found any languages that English gets, like, one and only one word from?

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Popping back in for a bit to answer, because all y'all were so great.

I remember seeing a word traced back to Akkadian when I was proofreading the Unabridged, so that's pretty fun (though it's no Tocharian A). As for languages that English hasn't stolen much from, Finnish comes to mind: the only common word we've stolen from them is "sauna," and we we also stole one uncommon word ("rune," which refers to a poetic form and not to the non-Latin alphabet of Germanic languages in the late Classical/early medieval period).

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Is there a general reason contronymns develop and what is your preferred term for them antagonym, enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy or Janus word?

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I like "contranym." Good assonance with "synonym" and "antonym."

They develop the way that most other words develop--though extensions of existing senses. The evolution of "peruse" is a good example; you can find an article I wrote for the MW site on it here.

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Hi Kory,

I know you sometimes handle responding to mail from M-W readers (is "readers" the right word for dictionary users?). What's the ratio of outraged mails to nice ones? And I'm sure the nice ones are job-affirming and heartwarming, but aren't you secretly thrilled when you get someone angry at something totally ridiculous?

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TRUFAX: I am totally thrilled when I get the occasional email from someone who is angry about something I consider to be totally ridiculous. Occasional email. I have one guy who writes occasionally to ask me to remove "floor" from the dictionary because a floor is just an upside-down ceiling that we walk on and "floor" is a stupid word anyway. When he writes, the lump of bituminous coal where my heart should be warms a little.

Most emails are pretty neutral: just asking questions about words. Fortunately.

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Hi Kory! I came to one of your readings and asked a question, but this is the question I wish I'd asked. How much overlap is there between the tasks of making a dictionary and making a thesaurus? Do most of the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster contribute to maintaining the thesaurus feature on the site, or is it a totally separate group of people? Thanks! I can't wait to read the book.

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Oooh, good question! It's a totally different process, and we have editors who seem to have a knack for thesaurus writing. I worked on a thesaurus a while ago and it was brain-wrenching in a new and special way.

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I do believe the first lecture I attended in EL101 was exactly that: we are here to study the patterns of language and not prescribe rules for it! And while that is a necessary attitude for academic purposes, I am really curious as to how someone in Ms Stamper's position (and yes, I think you're right about her stance professionally, but I would really love to hear her personal opinion) would approach something that seems to outrightly flout convention in formal use, case in point being "preventive" instead of "preventative".

What are the criteria she uses to reject or accept certain uses? Or does she not even think in those terms?

TL;DR i think i am a grammar nazi and i was wondering if ms stamper also considers herself one (outside of work at least)

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This gets down to the descriptivist vs. prescriptivist debates of the 20th century, and dictionaries are firmly on the descriptivist side of things. Though I honestly think that whole debate is nonsense: language can be both a living, evolving thing and still have a standard form that most writers and editors adhere to. In fact, that's generally what any language with a written form already is.

As for "preventive," you'll be SHOCKED, SHOCKED to hear that it's actually the word that, about 100 years ago, usage commentators preferred over "preventative." Standards change with the times. O tempora, o mores.

Tl;dr: deffers not a snoot or stickler or anything like that.

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What's the biggest error you've seen make it through to the final stage of a dictionary? If you had to re-design the format of a word-entry, how would you do it?

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Hello fellow word nerd!

Which word do you most often find yourself mis-spelling?

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Achieve! Holy crap, I used to know how to spell it, but I'm pretty sure that my brain has limited capacity for word stuff, so it's pushed helpful things like the correct spelling of "achieve" out to make room for stupid jokes about Samuel Johnson and the dative of agent. :(

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Have there ever been revivals of very old words re-entering common usage? What are some examples? What would you like to see come back?

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"Snollygoster," which fell so far out of use that we took it out of our Collegiate Dictionary in the 1980s. We just had to add it back in, thanks to its use by Bill Safire and a well-known shouty (now suddenly former) cable TV personality, who just looooooooved using the word "snollygoster."

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What is the craziest English word?

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Define "crazy." Long and weird? Weirdest definition? Short and weird? (You see a theme, here...)

For long and bonkers, you can't beat place names. Not too far from the corporate offices is Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg, or "lake that is the boundary fishing areas between the Nipmuck and the English knifemen" (or thereabouts). They call it "Lake Webster" for short.

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How much hope do you hold out for the printed dictionary? Wikipedia killed off printed encyclopedias, can we avoid the same fate for printed dictionaries?

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I hold out a good deal of hope. First, printed dictionaries are way cheaper than printed encyclopedias: most people can scrimp and afford a $25 dictionary (if they want a nice hardcover one), but few people can afford a $2,000 printed encyclopedia set. And though we live in this digitized world, there are plenty of places and people who still prefer print. It's a lot easier to use a print dictionary when there's no electricity than it is use to a digital one.

And, in fact, people are still buying print dictionaries. So not all is lost, printwise.

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Excited for the book.

What is the future of the dictionary and of words in general?

I have conversations with people building breakthrough technologies who are optimistic about the future of the world and are trying to make will positive changes to occur.

I don't think words will ever go away but communication seems to be trending even more towards symbols to represent words and feelings (this has always occurred but now it's happening in a different and easier way - emoji being the easiest example).

MW is one of my favorite follows on Twitter because the company seems to understand how to use the latest tools. I'm really curious where you see things going in 100 years, 250 years, etc.

Cheers!

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Oh man, I have no idea. Lexicographers make lousy prognosticators: Johnson assumed that English was going to just keep devolving and saw his dictionary as a tiny brick in the precarious dam that barely kept barbarism from flooding the linguistic plain. I don't think dictionaries are going anywhere, and words certainly aren't either: they're a pretty key part of communication.

Emoji are interesting: sometimes they're lexical, and sometimes they aren't. The sentence "<praying hands><car><heart>" from my daughter clearly means "Thanks for the gas money, love you" and so is lexical; the sentence "Thanks for the gas money, love you <heart>" features an emoji that isn't lexical but is just amplifying the previous sentence.The question is, will lexicalized emoji make the jump into edited prose? Will they stabilize in meaning? For instance, the winky-face emoji was once considered jokey, but most young folks now see it as flirty. That's a pretty swift shift.

Counterpoint: we've always had pictographs in English. Look at the manicule. It was a really helpful mark, but it fell out of use by the end of the 19th century. (Maybe even by the end of the 18th?) Will emoji head the same way?

This is all by way of saying ¯_(ツ)_/¯.

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Is there anything about language that you wish was taught differently in schools? Especially US public schools. Topics you think are over-emphasized or under-emphasized?

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The only thing I wish was taught was that language is dynamic and changing. It'd make kids feel a lot better about not getting the subjunctive right on the first try.

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Hi Ms. Stamper,

I've been reading your book, and I am curious what changes you might make (were you to be appointed Grand Poobah of all things) to how English is taught in primary school. Should teachers pressure their students into using Standard English in all of their classroom activities? Just in writing? Should they be counted off for dialectal usages that do not fit into Standard English?

You write quite a bit about how English (standard and otherwise) is constantly changing, and cannot truly be guided. Should English teachers be more proactive about accepting change in language use as it comes along? What sets apart grammatical rules that have no place from ones that teachers should be enforcing?

Thanks for taking time to host this AMA. I know this is a bundle of questions but really I am just interested in your general thoughts.

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Standard English has a place in the language: it's the formal written dialect. So I think it's fine for teachers to ask students to use the formal written dialect in formal writing assignments. It gets trickier when you move to speech, though, and I think it depends on the teacher, the subject, the students, the place, the time. I had a junior-high teacher who marked kids off for mumbling or slouching, which are two of the things that most mark being a teen in a boring class. I remember nothing else from his class except what a pedantic jerk he was.

As for rules that teachers should be enforcing...again, that comes down to the teacher, the student, the assignment. I think it's far better to tell students (especially older ones) the history of the rules being enforced if you're going to enforce them, and to warn students that "good English" is a moving target. Lots of that sort of research has been done for folks in usage dictionaries, and I recommend that everyone get a few and compare them. You'll get a general consensus that way.

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What is your opinion on "esquivalience"? The word that was a copyright trap?

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...eh. I get the point of copyright traps, and I seem to recall that "esquivalience" actually worked (in that someone copied it into their dictionary, but I don't remember the deets). But in reality, we're all under so much pressure to get as much as possible into that book that it pains me to think of giving up two lines to a word that doesn't actually exist.

You also don't want some enterprising young student to stumble across it and begin using it in their essays, because then what? What happens when someone sees a copyright-trap word but doesn't know it's a copyright trap?