Two articles from the New York Times on lexicography, lexicographers, and the words they put in dictionaries.
Jennifer Schuessler talks to Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, the USA’s foremost dictionary publisher. The company traces its origins back to Noah Webster, America’s first lexicographer of renown, and the originator of its reformed spelling of numerous English words (“color” instead of “colour,” and so forth).
Stamper, author of the recent Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, takes Schuessler on a tour of the company’s basement-dungeon oddities (it is not at all uncommon for dictionary publishers to have weird items stacked in a dungeon-like basement). One of these is the Backward Index – hundreds of thousands of cards with words spelled backwards – produced between the 1930s and 1970s. It drove the typist insane.
Stamper contends that “it’s perfectly fine to hate parts of the language,” and points out that the function of a dictionary “isn’t to say what something is, but to objectively and comprehensively catalog the many different ways words are used by real people.”
In the second article on their interaction, the lexicographer reiterates this descriptive – rather than prescriptive – aim of dictionaries: “A dictionary is a record of the language as it’s used. It’s not a record of language as we wish it were used, or want it to be used.”
Take, for example, the word “irregardless,” which no one seems neutral about. It’s been on the margins of the English language for more than two centuries, and still causes fights between word geeks. Stamper describes it as being “like this barnacle that you can’t get off the hull of the language.” Whether you love or hate it, it looks like it’s here to stay. And that means it gets to be in the dictionary.