13 Secrets of Rare Book Dealers

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In the digital age, the rare book trade might seem like an antiquated trend from a bygone era, known for its dusty tomes and pedantic old men. But e-books have actually awakened readers to the fact that a printed book is more than just the written text—it’s an historical object itself. Thanks to the internet, information on this esoteric subject is now widely available, and more people than ever are learning about book collecting. Dealers are also handling a wider variety of material, and these fresh perspectives are electrifying a once-sleepy, rarified world. With these developments, the trade has changed more in the last 20 years than in the last 200. Rebecca Romney, a rare book dealer based in Brooklyn, shares some secrets and surprises of this quirky corner of book culture with Mental Floss in this list.

1. AN OLD BOOK ISN’T NECESSARILY A RARE BOOK.

A shelf of older books, some with damaged covers
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In book collecting, supply and demand are king. A book becomes “rare” when it’s both hard to find and highly sought. If the supply side or the demand side isn’t extreme, it doesn’t qualify. This means a book from 1850 isn't necessarily “rare” if no one wants it. And no, a book from the 1800s isn’t automatically desirable because it’s “old.” In rare books, the word "old" is relative: Within the 500 years of printed history we handle, a book from 1850 isn't really that old. The only books old enough to be highly sought-after just for their age are those printed in the 1400s, from the earliest years of printed books in the West.

2. IT’S NOT JUST BOOKS.

Yes, our profession is called the rare book trade, but that's because it’s easier to say. In fact, we handle manuscripts, scrolls, etchings, and other prints, archives—even sometimes ventriloquist dummies from itinerant woman preachers. Is there text? Or does the item have a connection to books in some way? That’s good enough for us.

3. YES, DUST JACKETS REALLY ARE THAT IMPORTANT.

A bookseller holding a first edition of The Great Gatsby at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair in 2013
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

“Completeness” is a key standard of book collecting—the idea is that a book should retain all the parts with which it was historically issued. In modern books, this often means the dust jacket: A first edition’s price can rise or fall exponentially based on the original dust jacket. An extreme example is The Great Gatsby: Without the jacket, a first edition currently runs around $4000-$6000. In a decent, unrestored original dust jacket, the price leaps closer to $100,000.

4. WE LITERALLY COUNT EVERY PAGE OF A BOOK.

This is especially true for books from before about 1800, in what we call the “handpress” period. The earlier in print history you go, the more likely you are to discover missing pages. Objectionable passages are torn from banned books. Stunning engravings are excised to be framed and put on a wall. The blank pages in the front or back of a book are often missing, too: Historically, paper was an expensive commodity, so owners would tear out those blank pages for use. Dealers must go through a book page by page to make sure that everything has remained intact. We even have a specialized method of counting based on how the book was formatted by the printer. And we hate being interrupted in the middle of counting a 500-page book. One of my friends puts a sign on her desk that reads, “Don’t bother me: I’m counting.”

5. YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE A LOT OF MONEY TO COLLECT.

A stack of bills inside an older book
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The books that make the headlines are the $6 million Shakespeare First Folio or the $150,000 first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But often the most interesting collections—the ones that end up housed at some prestigious institution—are built by people who aren’t buying the most expensive books. In 2015, Duke University acquired the collection of Lisa Baskin, which documents women at work through the past five centuries, to much fanfare. Baskin formed this world-class collection for a fraction of the expense one might expect—because for most of the 40 years she was collecting, she was purchasing books that weren’t popularly sought. Today we say, “an 18th-century woman entomologist who published her own drawings of her scientific observations? Yes please!” But in the 1980s, such works were met with a shrug.

This year my company established a book collecting prize for women aged 30 and under with an eye toward demonstrating that great collections don’t have to be valuable tomes kept behind glass. Our first winner collects romance novels.

6. WE HATE IT WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT A BOOK’S SMELL.

We’ve all held a beloved old book and smelled the pages, taking in that vanilla-like aroma. It’s cozy. It’s peaceful. It reminds us of rainy days, blankets and tea, secret gardens. And it’s not relevant to most rare books. That particular smell comes from the lignin in cheaply produced paper, a chemical introduced when wood pulp was added to papermaking processes in the 1840s. For most of the history of printed books—over 500 years—a book with a smell means mold, or dirt, or any number of unpleasant materials that have been rubbed into the pages over the years. Smells are a red flag that something is wrong. We do not want our books to smell. Walking into our shop and remarking on the smell is like exclaiming, “Your books are gross!”

7. WE DON’T USE WHITE GLOVES. AND WE’RE NOT SORRY.

A senior specialist for rare books and manuscripts at Christie's holds a copy of former President George Washington's personal copy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights in 2012
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This is probably the single biggest misconception about rare books. Random strangers yell at me for it all the time. In fact, it was established years ago that gloves weaken your tactile sensitivity. That means you're much more likely to tear a page, or otherwise damage the book (like, heaven forbid, dropping it) while wearing them. Instead, conservationists simply recommend handling them with washed and well-dried hands. This myth has been perpetuated by the exceptions: A very small percentage of materials, like metal bindings and photographic film, do require gloves. But rare book curators from such institutions as the Harvard library system and the British Library [PDF] have made it very clear that white gloves have no place in a rare book room.

8. DIFFICULT CLIENTS DON’T GET OFFERED THE BEST MATERIAL.

Say you’ve acquired the find of a lifetime. You know there are at least three collectors who would jump for the chance to add it to their library. Who gets the first offer? The guy who beats you up about your price and denigrates the material as part of his haggling strategy, or the guy who smiles and asks you how you’ve been before you get to the serious talk? Many collectors think haggling gets them the better deal, but it’s a dangerous game: Become too difficult or stressful to work with, and you will get fewer phone calls from the dealers who find the material you want to buy.

9. THERE IS AN ASSOCIATION OF ANTIQUARIAN BOOKSELLERS, WITH BYLAWS AND A CODE OF ETHICS.

Two men at the Park Avenue Armory during the New York Antiquarian Book Fair in 2013
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If you’re a new rare book dealer, one of your most important goals is getting into the ABAA, or the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. You must demonstrate a record of professional dealings for at least four years in order to apply. Current members are surveyed and asked whether new applicants pay their bills, accurately describe their material, and run their business ethically. Once you join the ABAA, there are a number of important perks. Besides carrying the seal of approval in the American rare book trade, you are eligible to showcase your inventory at the ABAA-organized book fairs, including the biggest one in the country, at the Armory in New York City. For some dealers, the sales from the New York book fair alone can make up 25 percent to 50 percent of their annual revenue.

10. IT’S NOT JUST OLD WHITE MEN. BUT IT IS PRETTY MUCH ALL WHITE.

In this business, dealers in their 40s are considered the young whippersnappers. But the new generation of younger dealers is making its presence felt, especially in handling material outside the traditional canon of dead white men: LGBTQ material, African Americana, women’s history, pulp publications, punk ephemera [PDF], and more.

Women are making significant inroads as well. While there have always been formidable women at the top of the rare book trade, we’re seeing an increasing number of women running their own businesses or being offered equity in established firms. We also recently established a successful schedule of networking events to provide support, mentoring, and business opportunities for women in the trade.

We still have a major problem with racial diversity, however. The trade is taking steps to attract and train people from underrepresented groups, but we have a long way to go. One of the most important new developments is the Belle da Costa Greene scholarship, named after J.P. Morgan’s brilliant book buyer and librarian, who was African-American. It is awarded annually to a person from an underrepresented or disadvantaged community to attend the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, commonly known as “Bookseller Bootcamp” for dealers.

11. MANY RARE BOOK DEALERS ARE ALSO SCHOLARS IN THEIR CHOSEN FIELDS.

A bookseller at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair in 2013
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Many of the best rare book dealers specialize in particular subject areas. Because of their endless research with primary source materials, they earn a reputation of expertise in that topic. One famous example is the 20th century rare book dealer Madeleine Stern, who tracked down Louisa May Alcott's pseudonyms in her search for material to sell and discovered that the author of Little Women had for years been writing sensational "blood and thunder" stories—19th century pulp fiction—under a pen name.

12. MOST COMPANIES ARE PRETTY MUCH MOM-AND-POP SHOPS.

Many rare book dealers are one- or two-person operations. Only a small fraction of companies have three or more employees. A company is huge if it has over ten people. On the one hand, this gives the job a decidedly anti-corporate atmosphere: Many of us joke that we are unemployable elsewhere. On the other hand, it also means we do everything needed to run the business, from shipping to website design, on our own. Besides the bootstrapping, it also means living with the risks of a small business. For example, I know of only a handful of rare book firms who offer health insurance or some kind of retirement plan. Frankly, most of us plan to keep dealing until we drop dead mid-sale.

13. RARE BOOK DEALERS ARE ONE BIG FAMILY.

This is a small world. We all know each other. The ABAA is made up of perhaps 400 active members across the nation. Many of my best friends are fellow dealers, even if they live across the country. We see each other a few times a year, mostly during book fairs, where we celebrate our regular reunions with lots of alcohol. We know which dealers have chronic money problems, which are most likely to be casually sexist, and whom we can go to in a crisis. We know each other’s strengths, so we’ll often refer people with books to sell to a colleague who specializes in that subject. ABAA book fairs, in many ways, are like Thanksgiving dinner with extended family. We may not all get along, but we all made the same decision: to try making a living in this odd world, risking our livelihood to help save and preserve history.

13 Secrets of Halloween Costume Designers

vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images
vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images

For consumers, Halloween may be all about scares, but for businesses, it’s all about profits. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers will spend $8.8 billion this year on spooky goods, including $3.2 billion on costumes. “It’s an opportunity to be something you’re not the other 364 days of the year,” Jonathan Weeks, founder of Costumeish.com, tells Mental Floss. “It feels like anything goes.”

To get a better sense of what goes into those lurid, funny, and occasionally outrageous disguises, we spoke to a number of designers who are constantly trying to react to an evolving seasonal market. Here’s what we learned about what sells, what doesn’t, and why adding a “sexy” adjective to a Halloween costume doesn’t always work.

1. Some Halloween costumes are just too outrageous for retail

For kids, Halloween is a time to look adorable in exchange for candy. For adults, it’s a time to push the envelope. Sometimes that means provocative, revealing costumes; other times, it means going for shock value. “You get looks at a party dressed as an Ebola worker,” Weeks says. “We have pregnant nun costumes, baby cigarette costumes.” The catch: You won’t be finding these at Walmart. “They’re meant for online, not Spencer’s or Party City.”

2. … but there are some lines Halloween costume designers won’t cross.

Although Halloween is the one day of the year people can deploy a dark sense of humor without inviting personal or professional disaster, some costume makers draw their own line when it comes to how far to exceed the boundaries of good taste. “We’ve never done a child pimp costume, but someone else has,” says Robert Berman, co-founder of Rasta Imposta. Weeks says some questionable ideas that have been brought to the discussion table have stayed there. “There’s no toddler KKK costume or baby Nazi costume,” he says. “There is a line.”

3. Designers can produce a Halloween costume in a matter of days.

A lot of costume interest comes from what’s been making headlines in the fall: Costumers have to be ready to meet that demand. “We’re pretty good at being able to react quickly,” says Pilar Quintana, vice-president of merchandising for Yandy.com. “Something happening in April may not be strong enough to stick around for Halloween.”

Because the mail-order site has in-house models and isn’t beholden to approval from big box vendors, Quintana can design and photograph a costume so it’s available within 72 hours. If it's more elaborate, it can take a little longer: Both Yandy and Weeks had costumes inspired by the Cecil the Lion story that broke in July 2015 (in which a trophy hunter from Minnesota killed an African lion) on their sites in a matter of weeks.

4. Beyonce can help move stale inventory.

Extravagant custom tailoring jobs aside, Halloween costumes are a business of instant demand and instant gratification—inventory needs to be plentiful in order to fill the deluge of orders that come in a short frame of time. If a business miscalculates the popularity of a given theme, they might be stuck with overstock until they can find a better idea to hang on it. “[In 2016] we had 400 or 500 Zorro costumes that we couldn’t sell for $10,” Weeks says. “It had a big black hat that came with it, and I thought, ‘That looks familiar.’ It turned out it looked a lot like the one Beyonce wore in her ‘Lemonade’ video.” Remarketed as a "Formation" hat for Beyonce cosplayers, Weeks moved his stock.

5. Women don’t usually wear masks as part of their Halloween costumes.

Curiously, there’s a large gender gap when it comes to the sculpted latex monster masks offered by Halloween vendors: They’re sold almost exclusively to men. “There just aren’t a lot of masks with female characters,” Weeks says. “I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because men in general like gory, scary costumes.” One exception: Hillary Clinton masks, which were all the rage in 2016.

6. Food costumes are always a hit for Halloween.

At Rasta Imposta, Berman says political and pop culture trends can shift their plans, but one theme is a constant: People love to dress up as food. “We’ve had big success with food items. Bananas, pickles. We did an avocado.”

7. Adding ”sexy” to a Halloween costume doesn’t always work.

It’s a recurring joke that some costume makers only need to add a “sexy” adjective to a design concept in order to make it marketable. While there’s some truth to that—Quintana references Yandy’s “sexy poop emoji” costume—it’s no guarantee of success. “We had a concept for ‘sexy cheese’ that was a no-go,” she says. “'Sexy corn’ didn’t really work at all. ‘Sexy anti-fascist’ didn’t make the cut this year.”

8. People ask for some weird stuff when it comes to Halloween costumes.

In addition to monitoring social media for memes and trends, designers can get an idea of what consumers are looking for by shadowing their online searches. Costumeish.com monitors what people are typing into their search bar to see if they’re missing out on a potential hit. “People search for odd things sometimes,” Weeks says. “People want to be a cactus, a palm tree, they’re looking for a priest and a boy costume. People can be weird.”

9. Halloween costume designers have workarounds for big properties.

Go out to a Halloween party over the past few years and you’re almost guaranteed to run into the Queen of the North. But not every costume maker has the official license for Game of Thrones. What are other companies to do? Come up with a design that sparks recognition without sparking a lawsuit. “Our biggest seller right now is Sexy Northern Queen,” Quintana says. “It’s inspired by a TV show.” But she won’t say which one.

10. People love sharks.

From the clunky Ben Cooper plastic costume from 1975’s Jaws to today, people can’t seem to get enough of shark-themed outfits. “We do a lot of sharks,” Berman says. “Maybe it’s because of Shark Week in the summertime, but sharks always tend to trend. People just like the idea of sharks.”

11. Dead celebrities mean sales.

It may be morbid, but it’s a reality: The high-profile passing of celebrities, especially close to Halloween, can trigger a surge in sales. “Before Robin Williams died, I couldn’t sell a Mork costume for a dollar,” Weeks says. “After he died, I couldn’t not sell it for less than $100.”

12. The Halloween costume business profits from people shopping at the last minute.

Ever wonder why food and other novelty costumes tend to outsell traditional garb like pirates and witches? Because costume shopping for adults is usually done frantically and they don’t have time to compare 25 different Redbeards. “People tend to do it at the very last minute, so we want something that pops out at them,” Berman says. “Like, ‘Oh, I want to be a crab.’”

Weeks agrees that procrastination is profitable. “We make a lot of money on shipping,” he says. “Some people get party invites on the 25th and so they’re paying for next-day air.”

13. It’s not actually a seasonal business.

Everyone we spoke to agreed that the most surprising thing about the Halloween business is that it’s not really seasonal on their end. Costumes are designed year-round, and planning can take between 12 and 18 months. “It’s 365 days a year,” Quintana says. “We’ll start thinking about next Halloween in December.”

This piece was first published in 2017 and republished in 2019.

11 Secrets of Lexicographers

Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images
Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images

Merriam-Webster defines a lexicographer as “an author or editor of a dictionary.” The job sounds simple enough, but the work that goes into researching and writing definitions like the one above takes a unique combination of skills. Lexicographers have to be passionate about words without being pretentious, knowledgeable without being overeducated, and analytic enough to treat language like a science while being creative enough to define tricky words like art and love.

To learn more about what goes into being a lexicographer, Mental Floss spoke with a few from the world’s top dictionaries. Here’s what they had to say about where they find new words, what goes into the editing process, and how they really feel about defining literally as “figuratively.”

1. Being a lexicographer doesn't require a specific degree.

There are a number of different paths you can take to get into lexicography. Most people who write and edit dictionaries come from some sort of humanities background, but there’s usually no specific degree or training required to become a lexicographer. Emily Brewster, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster since 2000, double-majored in linguistics and philosophy. She tells Mental Floss, “A lot of people have an English background. There are some editors who have linguistic backgrounds. But really, when your job is defining the vocabulary of the English language, expertise in any field can apply. We have science editors, we have people who are specialists in chemistry, specialists in law, so any kind of expertise can make you a better definer.”

According to Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer who worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and Random House Dictionaries, an education with a focus on lexicography specifically can actually be a turn-off for employers. “There was a university that once offered a degree in lexicography, but no dictionary house would ever hire someone with a degree in lexicography [...] In general, the people who are going to be teaching it that way are probably not experienced practical lexicographers, and the kind of things you need to do the job are rather different than what academics would study if you were studying lexicography.” Students studying lexicography at Université de Lorraine in France, for example, learn about etymology, polysemy (the existence of multiple meanings for one word), and lexicological analysis. A class can provide helpful background on the subject, but it won't necessarily equip learners with the skills and instincts they need to find and define new words.

Too much education, regardless of the subject, can also hurt someone’s chances of working for a dictionary. “In general you want someone with some but not too much training in some kind of general humanities discipline," Sheidlower says. "Not someone with a Ph.D., because people with Ph.D.s tend to think you can spend the rest of your life studying things, and when you’re actually working for a dictionary you have a list of 50 things you have to get done by the end of the week. The fact that one of them or all of them might be super interesting doesn’t mean you can spend three weeks studying the same thing.”

2. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are "proper."

The role of dictionaries is largely misunderstood by the public. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are valid and dictate how they should be used. Rather, they find the words that already exist and do their best to represent how they’re being used in the real world. “This is something non-lexicographers in particular have problems with,” Sheidlower says. “But the role of a dictionary is not to say what is correct in any sort of sense handed down from above. It is to say what is in use in language, and if people are using something different from how it’s used traditionally, that thing is going to go in regardless of whether or not you like it.”

3. Lexicographers know their decisions can create controversy—and not always for the reasons you’d think.

Even if lexicographers don’t think of themselves as linguistic gatekeepers, many people see still them that way. That can cause controversy when a word or definition makes it into the dictionary that people don’t approve of. One recent example is the inclusion of the word they in Merriam-Webster as a non-binary pronoun. “That’s been getting a tremendous amount of attention,” Sheidlower says. But as he explains, the dictionary didn’t make up the usage—it simply acknowledged its existence. “Singular they goes back to the 14th century—even nonbinary they goes back to the 18th century. ... New isn’t necessarily bad, but those things aren’t new.”

Words that fall outside sensitive social and political arenas can also stir outrage. A classic example is defining literally to mean "figuratively." “People hate that, they hate it so much,” Brewster says. “But it’s old, it’s established, and if we didn’t enter it, we’d be saying the word is not used this way, and the word is used this way and it’s been used this way since Charles Dickens. It’s not really our place to make a judgement if a word or a use is a good word. Our job is to report words that are established in the language.”

4. Lexicographers add hundreds of new words to the dictionary each year ...

Language is constantly evolving, which means that a lexicographer’s job never ends. Brewster estimates that roughly 1000 words are added to Merriam-Webster.com each year, including new senses of existing words. The most recent batch consisted of 533 new terms and uses, ranging from highly specific words like non-rhotic (the Bostonian habit of not pronouncing the letter r unless it’s followed by a vowel) to Instagram-friendly slang like vacay.

5. ... But lexicographers also have to be choosy.

More new words enter the lexicon each year than can fit between the covers of even the most comprehensive dictionary. To give readers an up-to-date picture of the English language without overworking themselves, lexicographers have to be selective about which words make the cut. As Brewster explains, every word that goes into the Merriam-Webster dictionary meets certain criteria. “We have to have significant evidence of a word in use over an extended period of time,” she says.

Those standards are a little vague for a reason. Taking the popularity and staying power of a new word into consideration, editors get to decide what counts as “significant evidence” and an “extended period of time” for themselves.

Brewster elaborates, “For example, the verb tweet as in the Twitter sense erupted very suddenly in the language. So that was a case in which very quickly it became clear that our readers were going to be served by having this term be defined. You can contrast that with a term like adorkable, it requires a longer amount of time before it meets that criteria of being in the language for an extended period of time because we don’t want to enter words that nobody’s going to be using in five years.”

6. Lexicographers struggle with words like love.

Lexicography is methodical and scientific work most of the time, but it can get subjective. If you’ve ever had trouble defining a term without using a related word, chances are whoever wrote its entry in the dictionary encountered the same problem. “A term like art or poetry or love, these are notoriously hard to define because their meanings are extremely broad. You can’t pin it down,” Sheidlower says. “The word itch is very hard to define. Trying to define the word itch without using the word scratch is very difficult. I’ll let you think about that one for a moment.” (In case you were wondering, Merriam-Webster defines itch as “an uneasy irritating sensation in the upper surface of the skin usually held to result from mild stimulation of pain receptors.” Pretty spot-on.)

7. Lexicographers rarely argue over words.

If you’re looking to have spirited debates over the value of certain words with your fellow language enthusiasts, lexicography may not be the career for you. Most of the work is done in silence in front of a computer, and conflicts that get more passionate than a politely worded email are rare. “People think we sit around a table and argue about the merits of a word. Or say, ‘Yeah, this word should get in!’ Or ‘Yeah, this word should never get in,’” Brewster says. ”It’s actually very quiet, solitary work. You can make a case for a word, but it’s all in writing. So when I draft a definition for a word, I will say that we have evidence of it dating back as far back as this date, and it’s appeared in all these different types of publications. We’re not very emotional about these things. I think we’re much more biologists than pundits.”

8. Several lexicographers look at each entry.

Putting together a dictionary is collaborative work. According to Brewster, a single word entry must go through several editors before it’s ready for publication. As a definer—what most people think of when they think of a lexicographer—she sets the process in motion. “Being a general definer, my job is to define all the non-technical vocabulary in the language. But that varies really broadly, from economics terms, like a definition for dark money, to pronouns, to prepositions, and also informal terms, like say twerking.”

After she drafts a definition, it also goes through the cross-reference editor (the person who makes sure any other relevant entries are addressed), the pronunciation editor, the etymologist (who traces the word's historical origins), the person who keys it into the system, the copy editor, and the proofreader.

9. Lexicographers promise they aren’t judging the way you speak.

You may assume that someone who makes a living defining words is a stickler for language rules. But lexicographers might understand better than anyone that there’s no one right way to speak English, and the “correct” version of any language is determined by its speakers. “Sometimes when people learn that I work on a dictionary, they worry that I am judging how they write or speak, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Erin McKean, the lexicographer in charge of the online dictionary Wordnik, tells Mental Floss. “I love English, and I love all the different ways to speak and write English. I'm much more likely to ask you to make up a word for me than I am to criticize the words you use!” So if you find yourself in a conversation with a dictionary editor, feel free to use slang and mix up farther and further—you’re in a safe space.

10. Don't ask lexicographers to pick a favorite word.

Lexicographers know more words than the average person, but if you ask them to pick a favorite, they may decline to answer. "You’re not allowed to play favorites," Sheidlower says. "You have to put in words that you dislike, you can’t spend more time researching words that you do like. It’s not personal [...] Just like if you’re a parent, you’re not allowed to say that one child is your favorite, which is generally the metaphor lexicographers will use when they’re asked that question."

11. The internet makes a lexicographer’s job easier.

For most of the job’s history, lexicographers found new words by reading as many books as possible. Reading is still an important part of their work, but thanks to the internet, they have a greater variety of materials to pull from than ever. Emily Brewster mentions Google Books and online corpora—collections of text excerpts from different places, sometimes related to a particular subject—as some of her favorite sources for researching new words and their definitions and origins. But her most reliable resource is a popular social media site. “I really like Twitter in general,” Brewster says. “From Twitter, I get to a huge variety of sources. It’s a really good network for connecting with all kinds of publications.”

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