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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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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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language
6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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