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10 Things We Learned About the Dictionary From Kory Stamper’s AMA

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Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper is a self-proclaimed "word nerd of the first order" and the author of Word by Word: The Secret Life Of Dictionaries, which came out last month. She spent part of this afternoon (April 20, 2017) in a Reddit AMA, dishing about her favorite definitions, words she wishes we had in English, how the internet is changing language, and the biggest mistake she's seen get into the dictionary.

1. SHE HAS A FAVORITE DEFINITION.

Asked her favorite dictionary definition, Stamper replied “I love the absurdity of the [Webster's Third New International’s] definition for ‘fishstick,’ which was ‘a stick of fish.’ Nope, but points for trying!”

And she has a runner-up: “I also love the definition for ‘gardyloo’: ‘used as a warning shout in Scotland when it was customary to throw household slops from upstairs windows.’ That this word exists at all is a triumph.”

2. SHE’D LIKE TO RENAME YOUR LOWER BACK TATTOO.

“I sort of wish that we called a lower-back tattoo by the name that Germans give it (Arschgeweih) instead of the name that we do (tramp stamp). Arschgeweih is far more accurate, anyway: it means ass antlers.”

3. SOMETIMES THERE’S AN INVERSE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE LENGTH OF A WORD AND ITS DEFINITION.

Asked if it’s true that short words often have long dictionary definitions, Stamper said “sometimes”—it depends partly on whether the dictionary is unabridged, in which case people expect more complex entries. But, she noted that the word hotel has a famously long definition in Webster's Third New International, Unabridged. Here it is:

A building of many rooms chiefly for overnight accommodation of transients and several floors served by elevators, usually with a large open street-level lobby containing easy chairs, with a variety of compartments for eating, drinking, dancing, exhibitions, and group meetings (as of salesmen or convention attendants), with shops having both inside and street-side entrances and offering for sale items (as clothes, gifts, candy, theater tickets, travel tickets) of particular interest to a traveler, or providing personal services (as hairdressing, shoe shining), and with telephone booths, writing tables and washrooms freely available.

4. DON’T PLAN A FUNERAL FOR PRINT DICTIONARIES ANYTIME SOON.

“Wikipedia killed off printed encyclopedias,” one participant asked; “can we avoid the same fate for printed dictionaries?” Stamper’s reply: “I hold out a good deal of hope [for the continuance of print]. First, printed dictionaries are way cheaper than printed encyclopedias: most people can scrimp and afford a $25 dictionary ... but few people can afford a $2000 printed encyclopedia set. And though we live in this digitized world, there are plenty of places and people who still prefer print … not all is lost, printwise.”

5. THE DICTIONARY INCLUDED A FAKE ‘GHOST WORD’ FOR MORE THAN A DOZEN YEARS.

In response to a question about the biggest error she’d seen make its way into the dictionary, Stamper linked to a Merriam-Webster video about the “ghost word” dord, which first showed up in the 1934 second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary as meaning “density.” Five years later, an editor realized that dord owed its existence to a misunderstanding of a note from a chemistry consultant who had typed the letters “D or d” on a slip of paper for the dictionary. At the time, the notes the lexicographers consulted while creating their definitions were usually typed with spaces in between the letters (to leave room to show stress and syllable breaks), so someone at the dictionary had misinterpreted that consultant's or in between the D and d as the middle of a word. It wasn’t, but the mistake was only corrected in the 1947 edition of Webster's.

6. YOU CAN STOP WORRYING ABOUT YOUR GRAMMAR AROUND HER.

Asked if she finds that people are scared to talk to her because she’s a “word person,” Kamper replied: “Yes, and it makes me SO VERY SAD. I don't police people's language when we're talking, though I know people assume I am, because I want to pay more attention to what the person is saying instead of how they say it.”

When pressed about whether there’s a particular grammar mistake that drives her nuts, Stamper offered this: “Most of the typical ‘grammar mistakes’ that people froth and rage over aren't actually mistakes: they are the expressed and canonized opinions of dudes of yore who found one particular use or word inelegant. Bombast sells, so these guys would simply say that XYZ was wrong—and because no one likes to be wrong, everyone parroted the advice. But most of those opinions go against how the language is actually used, and by some pretty decent writers, too: Shakespeare, Pope, Dryden, a smattering of Brontes, etc. And what's considered right is always changing.”

7. SPELLING THINGS ALOUD IS HER ‘SECRET SHAME.’

Stamper speaks multiple languages—English, Latin, German, Old English, Old Norse, Middle English, among others—but don’t ask her to spell things aloud. Asked what she’s learned about herself from working at a dictionary, she replied: “I've also learned that I can't spell aloud, because now I work with people who help judge spelling bees. There it is: my secret shame.”

Definitely don’t ask her to spell the word “achieve,” whose letters, she reports, her brain has pushed aside to make room for more jokes about Samuel Johnson.

8. SHE FELL IN LOVE WITH WORDS PARTLY THANKS TO OLD NORSE.

“I've always been in love with words to a certain degree,” Stamper explains. But, she says, “It was really Old Norse and Old English that started up the love affair in earnest … I talk about it at length in the first chapter of the book, helpfully titled "Hrafnkell: On Falling in Love."

9. THE DIGITAL WORLD IS SPEEDING UP THE TRANSMISSION OF NEW WORDS.

Asked how “being connected online to the whole world is changing English,” Stamper said, “I think that the whole online shebang shows us more of English more quickly. It's much easier to transmit global English or words from marginalized dialects like African American Vernacular English to a broader audience online than it was in print. Think of woke, which was used mostly in AAVE [African American Vernacular English] back to the 1960s, but which Twitter and Snapchat have spread to other speaking communities.”

10. SHE LOVES ‘KUMMERSPECK’ TOO.

The German word kummerspeck is one of our favorites around the mental_floss offices, and Stamper loves it too. Here’s how she defines it: “I absolutely love the German word ‘Kummerspeck,’ which refers to the fat you gain from overeating and literally translates to ‘grief bacon.’”

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Why Do Americans Call It ‘Soccer’ Instead of ‘Football’?
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While more Americans than ever are embracing soccer, they can't even get the sport's name right, according to some purists. For most of the world, including the vast majority of Europe and South America, it’s football, fútbol, or some other variation. In the United States, Canada, Japan, and a few other stragglers, it’s firmly known as soccer, much to the annoyance of those who can't understand how a sport played with feet and a ball can be called anything else. So why the conflict?

According to a paper [PDF] by University of Michigan professor Stefan Szymanski, it all began in England in the early 1800s, when a version of the sport of football—based on a game played by “common people” in the Middle Ages—found its way into the recreational scene of some of the country’s most privileged schools. To give uniformity to the competitions between these schools and clubs, a set of standard rules was drafted by students in Cambridge in 1848. These rules would become further solidified when they were adopted by the more organized Football Association in 1863.

It wasn't long before variations of the sport began to splinter off—in 1871, the Rugby Football Union was founded, using Rugby School rules from the 1830s that allowed a player to run with the ball in their hands. This new take on the sport would be known as rugby football, or rugger, to separate itself from association football, the traditional feet-only version of the sport. From there, association football would get the nickname assoccer, leading eventually to just soccer. The addition of an "er" at the end of a word was something of a trend at the time, which is why we get the awkward transformation of association into assoccer and soccer.

The first recorded American football game was between the colleges of Rutgers and Princeton in 1869 and used unique rules derived from those in both association and rugby football. Though this new, evolving game would just be called football in the U.S., elsewhere it would become known as gridiron football or American football, much in the way Gaelic football and Australian football have their own distinctions. Eventually in England, rugby football was shortened to just rugby, while association football simply became known as football. Which meant that now there were two footballs, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and neither side would budge. And Americans would begin referring to England's football by the previous nickname, soccer.

Despite the confusion nowadays, soccer was still a colloquial term used in England well into the 20th century—it rose in popularity following World War II before falling out of favor in the 1970s and ‘80s, according to Szymanski. In more recent years, it’s mostly been used in England in a strictly American context, like when publications and the media refer to U.S. leagues like Major League Soccer (MLS). Currently, soccer is mostly used in countries that have their own competing version of football—including the United States, Canada, and Australia.

While it boils the blood of certain traditionalists, soccer is by no means an Americanism—like the sport itself, this is purely an English export.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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YouTube, Hélio Surdos
How a Deaf-Blind Person Watches the World Cup
YouTube, Hélio Surdos
YouTube, Hélio Surdos

Brazilian Sign Language interpreter Hélio Fonseca de Araújo woke up on the day before the opening of the World Cup in 2014 thinking about how he could help his friend Carlos, who is deaf and blind, get access to all the excitement. So he hit the hardware store, rigged up a tabletop model of the field, and enlisted his friend Regiane to provide extra interpretation for all the complex information that needs to come through in a game. He recently brought the setup out again for this World Cup.

Here you can see Carlos watching the Brazil vs. Croatia match live, while Hélio provides Brazilian Sign Language interpretation (which Carlos follows by feeling it with his own hands—this is called tactile signing), and Regiane relays information about fouls, cards, times, and player jersey numbers with social-haptic communication on Carlos’s back.

This is the moment in the second half when it appeared that Brazil had scored a goal, but a foul was called. Hélio later makes sure Carlos can see how Neymar covered his face with his shirt.

And here is Coutinho’s game-turning goal for Brazil.

If you're wondering why Carlos occasionally looks at the screen, many deaf blind people have some residual sight (or hearing). Many deaf-blind people become fluent in sign language as deaf people, before they begin to lose their sight.

See the entire video at Hélio’s YouTube channel here.

A version of this story ran in 2014.

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