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5 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of How the Dictionary is Made

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AMAZON

The dictionary is such a comforting, authoritative presence in our culture that it sometimes feels as if it’s always existed. But a dictionary must be made. How does a dictionary come to be? The answer is also the title to a new book by Merriam-Webster editor Kory Stamper: Word by Word.

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries is a captivating inside look at the job of dictionary making from both a personal and historical angle. Stamper begins with the interview that landed her an entry-level position at America’s oldest dictionary maker and takes the reader along as she learns the ropes and works her way up, the process sometimes turning her original love of words on its head in ways she didn’t expect. Here are five behind-the-scenes secrets she shares about how the dictionary is made.

1. DICTIONARY WRITERS NEVER START WITH THE LETTER 'A.'

Dictionary entries require a million editorial decisions to be made about everything from font size and part-of-speech abbreviations to how to structure a definition. It can take a while to get comfortable in a set of guidelines, so it’s better start with H or one of the other letters toward the middle of the alphabet that doesn’t have as many words attached to it. If you work to the end from the middle, then tackle the beginning of the alphabet last, those letters will be “as close to stylistic perfection as possible,” Stamper writes, and it’s good to have the cleanest copy up front because “back in the days of yore when dictionaries were actually reviewed, reviewers would inevitably start looking at definitions in the first chunk of the book.”

2. THE HARDEST WORDS ARE THE LITTLE ONES.

While people tend to go to the dictionary to look up long, technical, or academic words, those aren’t particularly difficult for the definers. It’s the little words, “the ones that no one ever notices,” according to Stamper, that are the hardest to sort out. What do but, like, and as mean? What parts of speech are they? These are the questions that chain lexicographers to their desks in mental agony. Once you read about the exhausting whole month Stamper toiled on one little word—take—you will never take the little words for granted again.

3. WORKING ON A DICTIONARY WILL CHANGE THE WAY YOU SEE CEREAL BOXES.

It will also change the way you see matchbooks, shampoo bottles, barf bags—anything with text on it. Dictionaries must keep up with the language, and lexicographers are trained to notice not just new words, but emerging new uses of old words. They don't just sit around looking through great literature and scientific journals; every piece of text in the culture is another bit of evidence to consider. What sort of uses are quick and cook in the phrase “quick cook steel cut oats”? Evolving new uses? A good lexicographer cannot resist the impulse to clip out and file away the relevant piece of the oatmeal canister on which the phrase appears for future reference.

4. WHAT A GOOD DICTIONARY EDITOR MOST NEEDS IS BEST CAPTURED BY A GERMAN WORD: SPRACHGEFÜHL.

While anyone setting out to be a dictionary editor would benefit from having a firm grounding in grammar and etymology, it's not a requirement: Editors come from many backgrounds and fields not necessarily related to the study of language. What is a requirement is a quality so elusive yet specific that we had to borrow a German word for it. Sprachgefühl is a “feeling for language” or, Stamper writes,

"the odd buzzing in your brain that tells you that ‘planting the lettuce’ and ‘planting misinformation’ are different uses of ‘plant,’ the eye twitch that tells you that ‘plans to demo the store’ refers not to a friendly instructional stroll on how to shop but to a little exuberance with a sledgehammer. Not everyone has sprachgefühl, and you don’t know if you are possessed of it until you are knee-deep in the swamp of it."

Sprachgefühl can abandon even the best editors at times, putting them in an odd, confused state of “verbal fatigue” where they are driven to take a break and go searching for another human to confirm that they do, indeed, speak English.

5. IT’S ALSO GOOD TO HAVE A SOMEWHAT DIRTY, IMMATURE MIND.

A dictionary entry doesn’t just include a concise definition and information about pronunciation and grammar, it also gives example sentences that show how the word is typically used. Finding just the right sentence is an art, and much more difficult than you might think. In addition to finding the best, most straightforwardly boring illustration of a particular meaning, you must also be able to access your inner 12-year-old in order to detect any hint of double entendre. Examples like “I think we should do it!” or “That’s a big one” must be purged; to know that, you must view them through your naughtiest filter. Mistakes do happen sometimes. An example sentence at “cut” in the Merriam-Webster middle-school dictionary reads “Cheese cuts easily.” Stamper looks on the bright side: “I hope that it has given much joy to countless fart-obsessed middle schoolers and perhaps even convinced them that dictionaries are, if not cool, at least not boring and stupid.”

Find out more about the very cool, very not boring inside world of dictionary making in Word by Word

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entertainment
17 Electric Facts About MTV Unplugged
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Michael Stipe of R.E.M. goes Unplugged.
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Making its debut in 1989, MTV Unplugged—in which famous musicians perform stripped-down arrangements of their biggest hits—was a hit for both the cable network and the music industry, particularly in the early- to mid-'90s. Though it lost its regular time slot in 1999, in the near-20 years since, a handful of artists have popped in for brief revivals. But now it looks as if Unplugged is ready for a reboot; MTV has announced that the series will be back beginning on September 8, 2017, with Shawn Mendes as its first guest. In the meantime, here's a look behind the scenes of the music series that became a phenomenon.

1. OPINIONS VARY ON WHO CAME UP WITH THE IDEA.

Singer/songwriter Jules Shear has said that he came up with the concept for MTV Unplugged to promote his acoustic album, The Third Party. In 1992, The New York Times wrote that Shear was inspired by Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora's two-song acoustic set at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards.

That's all well and good, but producers Jim Burns and Bob Small claim they got the idea for MTV Unplugged after Bruce Springsteen treated the two—and the thousands of other fans at one of his concerts—to a final encore featuring just himself and his acoustic guitar. (Springsteen would find his way onto Unplugged in 1992.)

Executive producer Joel Gallen has referred to Unplugged as his "baby" as well and, like Shear, was inspired by Bon Jovi and Sambora's VMA set, which he called a "jumping off point." In I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Small said: “Please do not credit Bon Jovi for creating Unplugged. Jon Bon Jovi thinks he was the inspiration for it. He wouldn’t even do the f***ing show until almost 20 years later.”

2. BOTH HBO AND PBS SAID NO.

HBO passed on Unplugged when Shear proposed the concept to the pay channel. Burns and Small pitched the series to PBS after MTV initially said no. PBS simply echoed MTV and HBO. It was only when Burns and Small ally Judy McGrath got a promotion at MTV that a pilot got a greenlight.

3. IT WAS A CHEAP PILOT TO SHOOT.

Bob Small said he had just four hours to set up for the Unplugged pilot, with another four hours to film it—and all on a budget of $18,000. "I couldn't get money to hire a director," Small said. "They said, 'You direct it.'"

4. THERE WAS A HOST FOR THE FIRST 13 EPISODES.

None other than Jules Shear was the undisputed master of ceremonies for the first season. He also joined in on some songs.

5. THE FIRST GUESTS DIDN'T QUITE GRASP THE CONCEPT OF UNPLUGGED.

Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford from Squeeze were the stars of the first episode, which aired on November 26, 1989. But they were unprepared. "Chris and Glenn showed up for rehearsal with electric guitars," Alex Coletti, who would end up producing the show through 2001, recalled. "I said: 'Very funny, guys. Where are the acoustics? It’s Unplugged.' They looked at each other and went, 'Riiight… Make a phone call, quick!'"

6. PRODUCERS SCRAMBLED TO GIVE JOE WALSH ACTUAL FRIENDS.

"The fifth episode was billed as Joe Walsh and Friends, and Joe showed up with only one friend—Ricky, his bass player," Coletti remembered. "We thought it meant his famous friends, but apparently that got lost in translation." Walsh had been a member of The Eagles, who had an infamous falling-out, but Walsh's claim of buddies gave MTV employees false hope. Producer Bruce Leddy found Dr. John recording at a neighboring studio and convinced him to come on and be Walsh's "friend."

7. DON HENLEY WAS NOT HAPPY THAT WALSH PLAYED "DESPERADO."

Walsh's former Eagles bandmate wrote "Desperado," as well as a three-page fax explaining to MTV that he didn't want Walsh to play it and he was refusing permission to air the performance. It was after the fax that the network invited Henley to come on the show himself to perform it. Henley was the first artist to get an entire half-hour on his own as the only artist, which quickly became the status quo for Unplugged. In 1994, when The Eagles reunited, they appeared on an MTV Unplugged special.

8. LL COOL J HAD NEVER WORKED WITH A LIVE BAND BEFORE.

The first Unplugged featuring rap artists took place in 1991. Pop's Cool Love backed LL Cool J, MC Lyte, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest. “[It’s like] you drink milk for 10 years and then [you have to] drink fruit punch,” Quest's Q-Tip said about performing with the band. “It’s not that the fruit is bad, but you have to get used to it.”

But LL seemed able to adapt. "We rehearsed the night before and LL Cool J had never worked with a live band," Coletti said. "Before long, he was calling the shots like he'd been doing it his whole life."

9. LL COOL J KNOWS YOU SAW HIS DEODORANT.

"People have teased me about the deodorant for years, but I love it," he said. "It was raw! It was nasty! At least you know I wasn’t stinking.”

10. PAUL MCCARTNEY WAS THE FIRST ARTIST TO OFFICIALLY RELEASE HIS UNPLUGGED SET.

Before Paul McCartney, no other Unplugged artist body had thought to release their acoustic set as an album. But after he performed in 1991, the former Beatle was worried about it getting out to the masses illegally. “I figured that as Unplugged would be screened around the world there was every chance that some bright spark would tape the show and turn it into a bootleg, so we decided to bootleg the show ourselves," he admitted. "We heard the tapes in the car driving back. By the time we got home, we’d decided we’d got an album—albeit one of the fastest I’ve ever made.” He even titled the live performance collection Unplugged (The Official Bootleg).

11. ERIC CLAPTON WAS HESITANT TO RELEASE HIS SHOW AS AN ALBUM.

"Slowhand" performed to acclaim in 1992, but he initially didn't think it was good enough to be released officially as a CD. So naturally, his live album Unplugged won the Grammy for Album of the Year. His "Tears in Heaven" performance in particular won Song and Record of the Year. Two years later, Tony Bennett followed suit, winning the 1994 Album of the Year prize for his time on the show.

12. NEIL YOUNG WALKED OUT ON HIMSELF.

Neil Young's Unplugged was supposed to have been taped at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York on December 12, 1992. Instead, on that night—at that venue—the audience saw something they would probably never forget: Neil Young walking out the door after numerous mistakes. The "stunned" crew members managed to get him to come back to try again that night. Young opted to junk the performance entirely, and tried again two months later—this time with a band, and with much more success.

13. TORI AMOS WALKED OUT, TOO.

Amos was thrown off and "couldn't harness the energy." But unlike Young, she was able to walk back onstage, perform, and not have to try again with another set on a different night. As the singer/songwriter remembered it, she and her manager paced "beneath the MTV thing" backstage thinking about the problem. "Then my [lighting director] came down and said, 'Something just doesn't feel right. I can’t put my finger on it,'" Amos told Worstgig.com. "For 700 shows over the five years (prior to that), I'd played with the lights down. So all the lights were up to catch the audience and I felt like somebody was watching me take a shower. So they dimmed the lights, I felt better. By that point because I'd made the choice to stop it and make some changes, I felt like I began again. And I turned the whole show around."

14. ALEX COLETTI FOUGHT TO CUT "THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD" FROM NIRVANA'S EPISODE.

"Maybe I shouldn't give this secret away, but I built a fake box out in front of the amp to make it look like a monitor wedge," Coletti admitted to Guitar World in 1995. "It's an acoustic guitar, but he's obviously going through an amp," he added, talking about the now iconic David Bowie cover. "I actually fought pretty hard to leave that song out [of the final edit of the show], because I felt it wasn't as genuine as the rest of the songs. But I'm a huge Bowie fan, so I couldn't fight too hard against the song."

15. DAVE GROHL WAS ALMOST UNINVITED TO NIRVANA'S SHOW.

The Nirvana drummer remembered that it was a minor miracle that the band's Unplugged performance went so well. “That show was supposed to be a disaster,” Grohl said. “We hadn’t rehearsed. We weren’t used to playing acoustic. We did a few rehearsals and they were terrible. Everyone thought it was horrible. Even the people from MTV thought it was horrible. Then we sat down and the cameras started rolling and something clicked. It became one of the band’s most memorable performances.”

As Coletti told it, Kurt Cobain was thinking of just replacing Grohl behind the kit, or maybe not using a drummer at all. “What I didn’t know was up until the day [of the Unplugged performance], there was talk of Dave [Grohl] not playing at all in the show,” the producer revealed in 2014. “Kurt wasn’t happy with the way rehearsals were going; he didn’t like the way Dave sounded playing drums with sticks."

But Grohl turned up the day of filming, and Coletti gifted him some brushes and sizzle sticks to give his drumming a softer sound. "I was afraid Dave would just roll his eyes, like, 'Oh great, the a**hole from MTV is trying to be my friend,'" the producer remembered thinking. "But instead he opened the package and said, 'Cool, I've never had brushes before. I've never even tried using them.'" The album Unplugged in New York won the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album in 1996. It was the band's lone Grammy win.

16. YES, THEY TRIED TO GET ROBERT PLANT AND JIMMY PAGE TO PLAY "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN."

The Led Zeppelin bandmates reunited in 1994 for the Unplugged special: No Quarter: Robert Plant and Jimmy Page Unledded, which at the time was the highest-rated episode of the series ever. MTV suggested they film it in Queens, New York. Plant suggested Morocco and Wales because it was where he wrote "Kashmir" and "Down by the Seaside," respectively. Network executives explicitly requested "Stairway" but were shot down. "I think we're in a disposable world and 'Stairway to Heaven' is one of the things that hasn't quite been thrown away yet," Plant said in 1994. "I think radio stations should be asked not to play it for 10 years, just to leave it alone for a bit so we can tell whether it's any good or not."

17. LIAM GALLAGHER HECKLED HIS BROTHER.

Oasis lead vocalist Liam Gallagher backed out of the Royal Festival Hall gig in London at the last minute due to a "sore throat," so songwriter/guitarist/brother Noel took over the vocal duties. Noel would later disclose that Liam in fact appeared an hour before showtime "sh*tfaced," and when he tried to sing it sounded "f**king dreadful." Liam watched the performance from the balcony and at times jeered the band. Noel told him to shut up. Coletti thought it was all for the best. "There's something when the songwriter himself sings it. Maybe he's a little more connected to the song."

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