Kory Stamper: Word By Word
Tori Marchiony reports on how, long before Kory Stamper became a Merriam-Webster lexicographer, she was just a kid in love with language.
Kory Stamper is a noted lexicographer and a former associate editor at Merriam Webster. She is the author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries (2017).
Raised in Colorado, Stamper studied languages at Smith College in Massachusetts. In 1998, she was hired as an editorial assistant at Merriam-Webster. She spent the next twenty years working for the dictionary publisher, serving as associate editor for the last decade. While there, she hosted the company’s “Ask the Editor” video series. Her video on the plurals of “octopus” became a viral sensation.
Stamper writes about lexicography for The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, and The New York Times. She co-hosted Fiat Lex, a popular podcast about dictionaries. She contributes to Strong Language, a blog about foul language, and appeared in the 2021 Netflix series The History of Swear Words, providing commentary on the linguistic histories of various obscenities.
Grammar and language use may well be the last refuge of acceptable snobbery, yet in truth what is correct English cannot be dictated. It is changeable, democratic, and governed entirely by how real people apply it. For the past 20 years, Kory Stamper has spent most work days in silence, poring over the English language, searching for clarity that might help the rest of us define our lives. Writing dictionaries is a tiny niche. She’s one of only about 35 lexicographers working in the US today. So, it’s a good thing she’s really into it.
Kory Stamper: I’m agog when you use a word I don’t know! I love it, and I will, I’m the nerd that’s like wait, say it again, what does it mean? How do you spell it? Can you use that, can you use it in a different sentence? Can you use it as a verb? Can, you know and people are like—
AJC: I don’t know—
Stamper: “Lady, don’t talk to people on the bus,” like yeah.
When Kory Stamper graduated with a liberal arts degree that involved studying Latin, Greek, Norse, Old English, and Middle English, it was unclear what her career path might be, but when she got hired as an editorial assistant at Merriam-Webster, it was a natural fit for the Colorado girl who had grown up enchanted by words.
Stamper: For me, as a nerd in high school I didn’t, I shouldn’t have looks, was never going to be popular, and I was way too smart to be cool. I was in the band, so you know it’s like everything was against me in high school. So, the only thing I really had were words, and I just loved the sound of words in my mouth, and sort of as I discovered language more and more, like initially language just became a weapon. It was a way that I could deflect, so if someone was being horrible in the hall I could call them a troglodyte, and that you know everything would stop because cause nobody in high school knows what that word means, or I could you know call them ‘cacafuego,’ or I could call them ‘lickspittle’ and you know, I loved the word ‘lickspittle.’ For some reason it sounds so much more obscene than ‘brown noser,’ I just loved the way these words felt in my mouth. You know, you could really chew on them.
AJC: And where were you finding them? Were you sort of like someone would upset you in gym class and you’d go to your dictionary, or was it that you were just sort of taking notes in everything you were reading?
Kory Stamper: I mean it was kind of both, you know? I mean yeah, I was a voracious reader. I mean when I found my local library and started, I would just start pulling books at random. Just I’ll take this, I’ll take this, I’ll take this, and so I’d find some of these words in the course of reading and then you know also in the course of reading, encountering words that I didn’t know what they would mean, I’d go to the dictionary to look them up. And then you know you spend five minutes sort of flipping through and just looking at words that catch your eye. So, I did both of it. I sort of, I collected from all sorts of different places.
To Stamper’s delight, lexicography would turn out to involve quite a bit of reading, but it’s a very specific type of close, critical reading called ‘marking’ in which lexicographers search for examples of how words are being used in different contexts in everyday life. Those examples become citations, the building blocks of definitions. For Stamper, marking has become such a compulsion that reading for fun is nearly impossible.
Stamper: Yeah, it really messes you up. When I read for pleasure, I usually have to read the first chapter two or three times just to be like okay, we’re not at work, I’m not at work, it’s not a problem.
AJC: Was that sad that, I mean sometimes they say don’t make what you love your work because it’ll become work.
Stamper: I don’t know that I’d say it was sad. It took getting used to, I think.
AJC: So, does it feel like a calling then? Because also jobs that you can’t leave at the office, then so much become who you are.
Stamper: Right, first anyone who stays at this job for as long as I’ve been at it, you really have to love it because it’s not an easy job to do. So, in that sense, it is like a calling because you do end up devoting yourself to it in a way that I think most people who have long term careers probably don’t, because it does change how you interact with language, and you interact with language all the time. On the other hand, it is kind of like any other job, and I think the idea of it being a calling also gives you a sense of being like ‘yes, you were made to do this.’ I think that perpetuates this idea that lexicography is some sort of special, divine gift or it’s some kind of inspired art, and it’s not.
It took Stamper about 10 years to get a handle on the craft of lexicography. In 2017’s Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, she details the rigorous training process, which began with several months of close instruction. During this crash course, Stamper learned many truths about the English language that broke grammatical rules, the same ones she had always been taught to invest so much of her self-esteem in.
Stamper: If you are raised in the American educational system, your view of language is –there’s a bunch of it that’s right and there’s a bunch of it that’s wrong. If you use this, you’re going to get an A. If you use this, you’re going to get a D. And the reason that you need to know those is because you need to understand sort of this broader picture that people have of language, mostly so you can start tearing it apart. You know there’s sort of a breaking point I think for every lexicographer where you come up against a word you hate, or a word you believe is unworthy or a word you don’t even think is a word, and you have to grapple with it actually being a word, or being something that people use, or having a context that makes it worth entering. And yeah, there’s a little death to self there, like you have to be willing to let it go and I think the benefit of it is that it actually makes, it makes you a more gracious listener. I can then engage in a conversation or listen to a person and not be hung up when they misuse the subjunctive, or when they confuse lay and lie or when they use that when they should’ve used which. You know, all these fiddly little rules and in the moment it’s more about communication. It’s not so much about catching people in error. So I think if you’re willing to let go of all of that. If you’re willing to acknowledge that English is a mess, and it still holds together, then it makes you a more gracious person and it makes you more interested in language in a right way as opposed to in a way to shame other people.
AJC: And then in terms of the ocean that you swim in, I feel like it would be really easy to both talk yourself into and out of an existential crisis every single day. Of like ‘oh my god, this is so important and then ‘oh my god this doesn’t matter at all. We’re just going to do another dictionary after this.’ So sort of how do you, where’s your inner peace in these—
Stamper: It’s yeah, there are times where especially you finish a dictionary, it’s out the door. There’s sort of this, you get a couple of days to you know, breathe, read, and then we’re back at it and there’s a sense sometimes where the minute I put it in writing, it’s out of date. And there is a sense of like why? Why do I bother? But I think if you are committed to doing this, and if you’re a lexicographer you also understand that language is always going to outstrip whatever we try and do, and then it becomes a chase.
A chase to perfectly document the evolution of a language as imperfect as those who speak it.