“As you can imagine, I’ve been pretty busy the last day or two,” Kory Stamper told me. That’s understandable. If you had to choose a word to characterize her job as of late, you could do a lot worse than “Nietzschean.” As Associate Editor at Merriam-Webster, publisher of a number of popular dictionaries, she routinely finds herself tasked with destroying the idols that people build around the English language.
The idol-destroying business is particularly demanding right now. Last week saw the announcement of the latest round of additions to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, an annual event that routinely attracts media scrutiny. At times, that attention rises to a near-histrionic pitch as purists lament what they take to be the death-rattle of the English language.
Stamper and her lexicography colleagues had their work cut out for them with this year’s most striking new entry: f-bomb. Last week, Stamper could be heard defending the euphemism in any number of print and radio interviews, as well as at her Twitter feed, @KoryStamper. She also posts occasional meditations on the art and science of defining words at her blog, harm•less drudg•ery. She was nevertheless gracious enough to (ahem) drop the f-bomb long enough to talk with CultureRamp about the growth of social media and its effect on language and the writing of dictionaries.
CultureRamp: Perhaps the most obvious way that social media has affected your work is by the addition of words like “sexting”.
Kory Stamper: Exactly. Technology is always giving us new words, and as more people use social media (and the technology surrounding it), we see more and more use of social media terms in print and online.
“Sexting” is interesting just because, unlike a lot of other words, it really took off once it was introduced into the language. Right from the get-go, we saw it in articles discussing its legality, teens and sexting, whether cell companies should restrict it, etc.
CR: Controversy seems to have driven its adoption. Parents in particular were appalled at the idea. Giving it an easily applied label really set the stage for increasing coverage.
KS: As regards the use of the word “sexting,” absolutely. I can’t speak to the uptick in actual sexting, of course.
CR: Do you worry that, given the speed with which technology changes, some of the terms associated with social media will fall out of general use just as quickly as they came into it?
KS: That’s always a concern lexicographers have. It’s frankly a lot easier to get a word into the dictionary than to take it out of the dictionary. One criticism of the new words that I’ve heard quite a bit is that they seem old to people — but part of our defining process is making sure a word has a long shelf-life. “Cloud computing” is not a new idea, and the term isn’t particularly new by tech standards, but we wanted to wait and make sure the terminology settled out before we entered the word into our dictionary.
We do remove words occasionally, though, so if a technology really falls out of use, and the words surrounding it fall out of use as well, then we can always remove the terms from our smaller dictionaries (like the Collegiate).
CR: Do the criteria differ when the word is associated with a technology as rapidly changing as social media?
KS: Not really. There are three criteria for entry: a word needs to have widespread use in well-read sources; it needs sustained use over a certain period of time; and it needs to have an easily discernible meaning.
Each subject area presents its own challenges: social media, as you said, changes quite a bit, and so the word associated with it show shorter bursts of use than you’d expect.
But we still track it all. And the terms do settle out: witness “tweet.”
CR: Has the growth of social media changed other aspects of how you approach lexicography? You said one of your criteria was that a word needed to have widespread use in well-read sources — does that include, say, Twitter or social news sites?
KS: The Internet has definitely changed the way that we read sources — I would say, for the better. For the lexicographer, the more sources we have, the better. And so we do read a number of online sources, and I have marked tweets for new words. Just like with print sources, though, we try to carefully curate: we recognize that spelling and syntax on Twitter can be shifted around because of the space limitations; we know that typos happen online just as often as they happen in print; and sometimes sourcing information can be difficult if you’re seeing a re-post or a reblog of something.
Online news sites can be great for us because they may pick up regional articles we won’t have seen, or use global English, which you don’t see much in the US.
CR: You’ve been fielding a lot of discussion on Twitter and elsewhere. Would you say that social media has changed the public’s reception of new additions?
KS: Absolutely, though in contradictory ways. On the one hand, social media has made Merriam-Webster and its lexicographers more “real” to people — yes, actual living human beings are behind this book — and they feel a connection to you. You can have an intelligent back-and-forth on Twitter in real-time, and even if people disagree with the entry of a new word, it’s more conversational than an e-mail or a letter response.
On the other hand, we will see hundreds of tweets about a word (say “f-bomb”). As much as we want to respond to them all, we can’t. We have to spend most of our time writing dictionaries.
CR: What would you say has been the overall impact of social media on the English language?
KS: New words for the technology around social media (and those words tend to be really whimsical and fun, which is great). Texting and Twitter have given us new abbreviations (“obvs”) and initialisms (“OMG” and “LOL”) that we’re seeing slip into non-social-media writing. And it’s made English more of a global language as we interact in almost real-time with people who speak different dialects and variants of English. All of which are really exciting to lexicographers.
CR: It’s almost as though social media were developing its own lingua franca, rooted in English by shaped by the structure of these technologies.
KS: Right — but just as that technology becomes more integrated into offline aspects of our lives (smartphones, tablets, and whatnot), so that lingua franca becomes adopted into the broader vernacular.
Just this morning, my youngest daughter came into my office, saw me on the landline, and said, “Oh, you’re on the dumbphone.” Just beautiful.
CR: Has social media eclipsed other generators of new language? It doesn’t seem like there are any Shakespeares or Joyces pumping out new words these days.
KS: I don’t think I’d say that it’s eclipsed other places where words are coined, but maybe it’s best function is not necessarily as a generator of new vocab, but as an extender of it.
For instance, though “meme” was coined in traditional print, the word really was spread throughout our broader culture through social media. Then the traditional print sources picked up on it. And the reason they picked it up was because everyone online was talking about these “meme” things.
CR: And “meme” in social media is something tangibly different from “meme” as Dawkins meant it when he first started arguing for the term.
KS: Exactly. Our modern understanding of “meme” owes almost everything to social media.
“Mash-up” is another great example of this. It first showed up in print in the 1800s to refer to a combination of things. Our first cit refers to someone speaking a “mash-up” of languages. Our first uses obviously predate the Internet by about 100 years. And use of “mash-up” was really sporadic from its first use onward.
It really only took off as a part of Internet culture.First, in the late ’90s early Aughts, it was used to refer to musical mash-ups — Christina Aguilera and The Strokes, for instance.
Then when the Internet became interactive — more than just clicking a link and looking at a page — “mash-up” gained a much more serious sense and was used to refer to apps or social media sites that mingled and retrieved data across the Web. But the real interactivity that happened on the Internet didn’t end up being serious — it was fun. Movie trailer mash-ups and such.
CR: It seems to have propagated a lot simply on the strength of its tangibility. Any two things you put together can be a mash-up, simply because that’s a really easy way to conceptualize combining things that don’t naturally come as a single unit.
KS: Right! And because these mash-ups were not only tangible and accessible, but really fun, the word took off.
CR: Is there a danger that we could lose the sense of words that have been culturally important in the past? The way that Facebook uses “friend” and “like,” for example, is very functional, without a lot of the nuance that we get from older contexts. Do we lose something as those uses gain traction?
KS: I don’t think so, if only because we have a continuing discussion on the way that Facebook has changed the meanings of “friend” and “like.” People on both sides of the pro/con argument keep both uses alive.
This is a bit tangential, but it touches on something we hear a lot when we enter the new words: XYZ word is “destroying English.”
CR: Which seems to be a recurring theme any time you add new words to the dictionary.
KS: It is. But the fact is, adding words to a language does not kill it — it makes it stronger. The role of the dictionary is to be a concise and accurate record of the language in use. The mere fact that we keep entering new words — and new words of varying “seriousness” — means that English is thriving.
CR: To play devil’s advocate a bit, doesn’t it tax our comprehension, though? Most people can only keep up with so many words and meanings, right?
KS: Well, that’s why we keep producing dictionaries. Use those resources, people!
In all seriousness, I think language and one’s use of language is a lot more elastic than some people think.
CR: Has social media opened up the way that people look at word meanings at all? Growing up, I remember thinking that a dictionary definition was something fixed, almost Aristotelian. I can’t imagine that the generation coming up now doesn’t see how malleable language can be.
KS: I think that it’s made people more aware of the fact that language changes constantly. I’d wager that most people still think that dictionaries never change — that they are writ in stone and given to us from on high by the Syntax God.
My guess is, most people don’t realize how much their own vocabulary is malleable.
CR: In the sense of expanding their usage? Or something more than that?
KS: Expanding usage, certainly, but even more. For instance: very recently, and totally unconsciously, I have begun to use the word “wevs” as a playful way of saying “whatever.” My daughter pointed it out, and then I realized that I had a friend in London who used it in one chat session with me. My brain snatched at it and used it — and it’s a great way to make a tonal or register change in conversation.
CR: Did your friend have to explain it to you at the time, or did you just pick it up?
KS: No, I just picked it up! It was clear from the context he meant “whatever.” I use it to tease my kids. “Take you out for dinner? WEVS.”
CR: That’s interesting. It’s very much the medium that’s driving the coinage there. Because if you had just heard him say it, you might not have treated it as a different word, just a sloppy pronunciation.
KS: Yeah, maybe. Actually, probably. Lexicographers feel like any technological innovation is a chance for the language to thrive and stretch out in new ways.