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How Lexicographers Think About Language | Kory Stamper | Big Think

How Lexicographers Think About Language
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If you’ve ever used "y’all" in a business setting, you might be get an odd look from your colleagues but you might actually be helping the word get into the dictionary. Mirriam Webster’s Kory Stamper explains just how words end up making the jump from the popular vernacular to the dictionary. Sometimes society just keeps saying words wrong until they’re right (‘nuclear’ vs ’nuculer’). And sometimes these small decisions make a big difference. Which would explain the use of "irregardless" in the Supreme Court. Join us as Kory explains us the big difference between being a prescriptivist and a descriptivist.

Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, spends all day reading citations and trying to define words like “Monophysite” and “bodice ripper.” She has been doing this sort of thing since 1998, long enough to remember blue galleys, grease pencils, rubber stamps, and inter-office mail.  Most recently, she’s gained some notoriety for being one of three editors who write, edit, and appear in the “Ask the Editor” video series. (Pursuant to the video series: yes, her hair changes colors, and no, she will not marry you). In addition to working on definitions and (patiently, steadfastly) answering the editorial email, she sometimes travels around the country giving talks and lectures on things that only other word nerds would be interested in.

When she is not doing the word-nerd thing, she does other nerdy things, including knitting, baking, and live sound engineering. But she will probably not bore you to death with those things here.

You can read more of Kory’s blabbing on the Merriam-Webster blog and in the Guardian, where British commentors endlessly complain on every column she has written there. She also occasionally contributes to Strong Language, a blog about foul language.

Her debut nonfiction book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, was published in March 2017. Publishers Weekly called it “occasionally profane,” which is delightful. She’s working on another nonfiction book for Pantheon/Knopf, and that will also likely be occasionally profane.

KORY STAMPER: So these are two main approaches to language. There’s prescriptivism and descriptivism. 

Prescriptivism is a belief that the “best practices” of English will prevail. And so you champion the best practices of English. And the idea of the best practices of English—they sort of take a very broad look at the established canon of literature and use that. 

Descriptivism is another approach to language and it’s one that dictionaries use. And that is that you are a chronicler of language. You record the language as it’s used and not as you want it to be used. 

So editors are prescriptivists, for instance, because they’re trying to establish a standard way of writing or a standard tone or a standard voice for a publication. 

Dictionaries are a descriptivist because the goal of a dictionary is to record as much of the language as you can, and even though prescriptivists and writers and editors champion the best practices of English, the best practices of English aren’t all the things that end up in print. 

So as descriptivists we sort of look at everything that makes it into print—so good, bad and ugly—and enter those into the dictionary when they meet the criteria. 

I didn’t identify as a descriptivist before I got to Merriam Webster. I was a prescriptivist, because when you grow up—the way that our American educational system works—you grow up inside of this set of grammar rules. And those grammar rules are prescriptive. So when I started my job one of the first things that they said is: “You have to be willing to let go of any linguistic prejudices you have to record the language.” 

So I moved from being a prescriptivist into being a descriptivist. And I still have – there are still times when I’m a prescriptivist, and there’s still times when I see a word and say, “Ugh, I don’t like it.” 

But yes, I wasn’t a descriptivist before I started this job. 

I think there is value in defaulting to a descriptivist view of language, because what a descriptivist’s view of language assumes is that the person you’re speaking with has an equal command of the language that you do, and that their English is just as good as your English. 

And particularly in a business setting when you’re deali...

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