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Industry Influencer: Merriam-Webster Inc.

Merriam Webster

Today, Kory Stamper is here with us from Merriam-Webster Inc. to give us a little peek into the life of a lexicographer. Merriam-Webster has been teaching us how to spell correctly (and use the right word at the right time) since 1828!

CONTEST: Leave a comment below with your favorite word by June 18, and you’ll be entered to win a free year’s subscription to their subscription-only site, Merriam-WebsterUnabridged.com! Kory says, “It’s the only place people can access our new Unabridged Dictionary (in addition to six other references).” This contest is now closed. Congratulations to our winner, Sarah Rahmaan! Thank you to all who participated!

In the age of the Internet, what’s the biggest challenge for dictionaries?

For lexicographers, one of the biggest challenges of the Internet is also the biggest benefit: the access to and proliferation of sources. More sources online means more language to sift through and catalog.

Can you tell us about the future of dictionaries? What’s the next big thing we can expect?

Some people might think dictionaries are losing relevance, but dictionaries are more relevant than ever: Worldwide literacy rates are booming, and there are millions of people who are learning English by using the Internet. That means dictionaries have to be flexible and agile, which means they are moving to apps and websites. It also means that lexicography itself will move faster: We don’t have to wait for a new printing to fix typos or to add new words to a dictionary because it’s all electronic.

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How do you determine the definition of a word? Do you sit around and debate?

Not at all: That would require extensive human interaction! No, we base a word’s definition on how it’s used in edited English prose, which means there’s not much room for debate. We define words contextually, so the real power over the English language lies with writers and editors.

How does a person get to be one of the decision-makers for a dictionary as important as yours?

A lot of luck, and being in the right place at the right time. Editors at Merriam-Webster have to be native speakers of English, and they need a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college. But we value breadth of experience and education. The broader your experiences…the more types of languages you’ve encountered…the better a lexicographer you’ll make.

What’s it take for a slang word to become official in your dictionary?

The same criteria as any other word: extensive usage in edited English prose sustained over a certain period of time. Some slang is so ephemeral that it doesn’t have the shelf life to make it into the dictionary; some slang drops out of use and then resurfaces decades later; some slang sneaks into the lexicon and sticks around forever.

Any guesses as to what would be the MOST misused word?

Well, looking at the perennial top lookups as well as the comments our users leave in the Seen & Heard feature on our website, it’s likely that the most misused word is something like “nonplussed” or “paradigm.” (“Biweekly” is a common lookup, but no one is misusing it: They’re just using it to mean one of two seemingly contradictory meanings. In related news, everyone hates “biweekly.”)

How many words are currently in your database?

That’s hard to say, since most of our historic citation files haven’t been digitized. I’d ballpark the number of words in our citation files (both historic and current) as somewhere between two and three billion.

What’s your personal favorite word?

I have so many. I am partial to “gardyloo” (“-used in Edinburgh as a warning cry when it was customary to throw slops from the windows into the streets”) and I am an avid user/proponent of “foofaraw” (“a disturbance or to-do over a trifle: fuss”).

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CONTEST: Leave a comment below with your favorite word by June 18, and you’ll be entered to win a free year’s subscription to their subscription-only site, Merriam-WebsterUnabridged.com! Kory says, “It’s the only place people can access our new Unabridged Dictionary (in addition to six other references).” This contest is now closed. Congratulations to our winner, Sarah Rahmaan! Thank you to all who participated!

15 Responses to Industry Influencer: Merriam-Webster Inc.

  1. My favorite word is Write, it is what started man into the path to progress, once an idea, a way to plan crops, to build a hut was put in writing, it could benefit many more people.

  2. I love fun words; I don’t know if I really have a single favorite word, but one of them would certainly have to be ratatouille, as long as it is said “rä-ˌtä-ˈtü-ē.”

  3. These days it’s erinaceous: of, relating to, or resembling hedgehogs (although I haven’t managed to work it into a conversation yet)

  4. My EVERYDAY favorite words are ” ya`ll ” and ” ain`t ” And I am really liking the sound of ” influencer ” sounds like a very powerful word!

  5. My favourite word is wither because it reminds me to take advantage of the time we have because, like flowers in the fall, we, and everything around us, will one day wither and cease to exist. It is a sad reminder, but it is a good one.

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