Category Archives: Language

Word by Word

“The process of creating a dictionary is magical, frustrating, brain wrenching, mundane, transcendent. It is ultimately a show of love for a language that has been called unlovely and unlovable.”

Unlovable? Bah! English may be a strange, amorphous beast, but its quirkiness is its charm. In Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, captures this charm with verve and infectious enthusiasm. She brings to life a profession that, like many old trades, has been disrupted by the internet, in good ways and bad, yet still (I believe) remains vital. The institution of Merriam-Webster, Stamper writes, “has been around longer than Ford Motors, Betty Crocker, NASCAR, and thirty-three of the fifty American states. It’s more American than football (a British invention) and apple pie (ditto).”

Then again, as one of those people who keep a word list and lights up when I stumble upon a new fancy word, I’m an easy mark for a book like this. But I’ve also tried similar books written by word or dictionary people, and none of them hooked me like this one.

Tackling a different word or phrase with each chapter, Stamper addresses the typical ongoing lexicographical catfights—is “irregardless” a real word (technically), do people who write “it’s” instead of “its” deserve to die (no)—but also ventures into muddier terrain. How should “bad” words like “bitch” be handled? How to modernize the “nude” definition (in the pantyhose color sense) without racializing it? How to respond to the write-in campaign to eliminate the “same-sex” aspect of the “marriage” definition (because removing a word from the dictionary removes it from existence, apparently)?

The chapter on the word “take” is especially illuminating. You’d think the obscure ten-dollar words would require more work to nail down, but those are relatively easy; it’s the small words like “take” and “but” that are more demanding because they have so many different uses and senses, most of which native English speakers don’t even consider. I now have a vastly greater appreciation for the thousand and one small choices that go into every dictionary edition, and not only from the definers but the etymologists, word daters, pronunciation editors, and proofreaders who somehow corral the incorrigible, ever-expanding, often insensible English language into something approaching order.

But to do that, Stamper writes, requires all English speakers to think of the language not as a fortress to be defended within the paper walls of the dictionary, but as a child:

We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go; it heads right for the goddamned electrical sockets. We dress it in fancy clothes and tell it to behave, and it comes home with its underwear on its head and wearing someone else’s socks. As English grows, it lives its own life, and this is right and healthy. Sometimes English does exactly what we think it should; sometimes it goes places we don’t like and thrives there in spite of all our worrying. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like Latin; we can throw tantrums and start learning French instead. But we will never really be the boss of it. And that’s why it flourishes.

Hear, hear! And may dictionaries flourish along with it.

Every Book Its Clean Reader

I was ready to scoff at the makers of Clean Reader, an app that blocks swear words from being seen on ebooks. Jared and Kirsten Maughan offered rationale for their app in the FAQ:

The number one argument against Clean Reader is essentially that an author is an artist and they put specific words in specific places for a reason. Therefore we as the consumers of this “art” should consume it exactly as it was presented by the author/artist.

I suppose these same people would hate going to dinner with me at a restaurant.  I’m not a fan of blue cheese.  Some friends of mine love it.  I’ve tried to learn to like it, tasted it several times in several different settings and dishes.  To me it tastes like furniture lacquer.  When I get a salad at a restaurant and the chef thinks the salad is best served with blue cheese on it, I will spend a significant amount of time trying to find and remove every piece of blue cheese.  Then I’m able to enjoy the salad.  In the restaurant world the chef is the artist.  He has spent his entire professional life trying to create masterful pieces of art to be served on a dish or in a bowl.  Is the chef offended when I don’t eat the blue cheese?  Perhaps.  Do I care?  Nope.  I payed [sic] good money for the food and if I want to consume only part of it then I have that right.

So many things going on here: authorial intent, censorship, intellectual freedom and the freedom to read… But the strangest thing is that I kinda agree with the Maughans.

I believe in authorial intent (which we can extend to creator’s intent) inasmuch as I recognize an author typically has any intention for her writing and interpretation of it. But as it pertains to the reader’s or consumer’s experience with the creation it matters not at all. It sits entirely outside the bounds of the creation, and it can’t go home again. Authors do not have the right to be right. They don’t even have the right to be read. Can you imagine if restaurants no longer allowed substitutions or omissions of dish elements? Or if CDs didn’t allow you to skip tracks? I suppose they could, but as a customer I’d feel mighty condescended to, as if the artist’s interpretation were the only valid one and that we all needed to shove it down, no questions asked, no matter how gross it tastes. You can’t read at whim and for pleasure with your nose plugged.

I’m a librarian who firmly believes in openness and intellectual freedom. I get it: this reeks of censorship and nannyism and is symptomatic of the pervasive “trigger warning” epidemic. That’s why I’ll never use the app. (I’m also an adult without kids who doesn’t mind a few well-placed swears in my reading.) Most libraries have content blockers installed on the kids’ computers. Is that censorship? Definitely, but a kind most people are OK with, and for good reason. The computers for adults are another story. Many libraries, like the ones I work at, have no restricting software on the computers but reserve the right to expel a patron for viewing explicit content; others install the blockers everywhere and take a hardline approach to internet viewing.

And that relates to the question I have about Clean Reader: What’s on the naughty list? The software libraries have allows for blocking specific domains, certain keyword searches, and really any site it deems inappropriate according to the code of conduct established by the administration and approved by the library board of trustees. Clean Reader is just two people, free to define for themselves what “clean” means. And they do:

The “Clean” setting only blocks major swear words from display. This includes all uses of the F-word we could find. The “Cleaner” setting blocks everything that “Clean” blocks plus more. “Squeaky Clean” is the most restrictive setting and will block the most profanity from a book including some hurtful racial terms.

Pretty opaque. A Washington Post story about the app says it “automatically obscures the F-word and all its remarkable permutations, along with the S-word, different names for deity, racial slurs and, Jared says, ‘anatomical terms that can be a little racy.'” Add to this the execution of the app, which covers curses with a grey box and a blue dot. Tap on the dot and the app reveals a sanitized alternative: heck for hell, dang for damn, etc.

They’re having it both ways. They say “no changes are made to the original book the user downloads when they buy a book,” but by inserting the Maughan-approved into the narrative, even indirectly, they are altering the work. That’s a no-no, even in the name of shielding Little Maughan from words she’s gonna hear eventually.

And there, as they say, is the rub. Unless I knew my artistic sensibilities were identical to one Mormon couple from Idaho, why should I trust them to decide which words and phrases are kosher and which aren’t? Since the app was founded upon the belief in individual choice, shouldn’t users get to choose what makes their blocked list? Heck, make some money off it: charge a buck for access to the Master List and a few more for editing powers. Even if the ability to modify the list isn’t possible, a better understanding of what qualifies as Clean, Cleaner, and Squeaky Clean is.

Update: Cory Doctorow wrote about Clean Reader a few weeks ago. I’m glad I didn’t read it before writing this because I would have just linked to his post: “It’s a truism of free expression that if you only defend speech you agree with, you don’t believe in free expression. That doesn’t mean you have to defend the content of the expression: it means you have to support the right of people to say stupid, awful things. You can and should criticize the stupid, awful things [like Clean Reader]. It’s the distinction between the right to express a stupid idea, and the stupidity of the idea itself.”

Hat-tip to the five laws of library science for the post title.

Irregardless Is A Word, But A Bad One

Ta-Nehisi Coates went all TNC the other night on Twitter (which is just plain fun to watch) to address the evergreen “___ isn’t a word” debate, a favorite parlor game of pedantic English majors everywhere. Addressing whether irregardless  should be sanctioned as a real word when regardless was already acceptable, he ventured: “Worst argument is that there should be no words that already mean the same thing as other words. … Get rid of ‘beautiful’ because we already have ‘lovely.’ Lose ‘unattractive’ since we have ‘unappealing.'”

Except that that’s not the issue with irregardless. Irregardless is not a synonym of regardless; it’s a verbal typo of it. It’s most likely an accidental portmanteau of irrespective and regardless, both of which are “real” words. Beautiful is a synonym of lovely, but they each have unique definitions and etymologies and uses. People who say irregardless most likely mean to say regardless but have adopted the aberrational version of it. It would be like someone saying “beautilul” when they meant “beautiful.” If someone wants to give beautilul meaning as something other than a typo or mispronunciation of beautiful, great. I love making up new words. But absent that, beautilul is indeed a word in the strictest sense, but not as an acceptable synonym of beautiful.

This doesn’t mean irregardless isn’t word. As the OED’s Jesse Sheidlower said in an interview with TNC, “of course it’s a word.” It’s a thing said by people, so of course it’s a word. The question in this debate is whether it’s an appropriate word for the circumstances. I share TNC’s distaste of grammar fascists trotting out “That’s not a word” whenever someone deviates from the grade-school grammar line; however, I also share Alan Jacobs’ skepticism (contra Stefan Fatsis at The New Yorker) of the pure, unchecked descriptivist approach some dictionaries take with gate-keeping, or lack thereof. Not everything—word choice included—is always permissible, even in an instant-gratification culture where inconvenience is anathema and your right to be right is sacrosanct.

Some things aren’t and can’t be descriptivist, Jacobs writes:

This is reasonable in part because the relation between world and word is not unidirectional. People don’t use dictionaries only to discover the meanings of words they have encountered elsewhere; sometimes by browsing through dictionaries we discover that there are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamed of in our philosophies.

How beautilul.

Notes on Shady Characters

shadyKeith Houston’s 2013 book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks is like catnip for word nerds. It’s rife with historical trivia about the more uncommon punctuation marks that have littered language history, including the pilcrow (¶), dagger (†), and interrobang (‽). It also provides background on the symbols we seen all the time, like the hash sign (#) or the ampersand (@). Intrigued? Of course you are! Learn more at and read on for some notes I took while reading the book. Caution: extreme geekery ahead.

Boustrophedon (adj. & adv.): from left to right and right to left in alternating lines (from Greek “as an ox turns in plowing”)

Komma, kolon, and periodos were initially dots denoting short, medium, and long pauses

— The pilcrow (¶) started as a C (from the Roman capitulum, meaning “chapters”) that was filled in with a vertical line by medieval scribes

— The word pilcrow originated as the Greek paragraphos, which became pelagraphe, which became pelagreffe, whose Middle English pylcrafte turned into pilcrow.

— Alternative names for the interrobang (‽): exclamaquest (which is my favorite), interrapoint, exclarogative

lb (for “pound”) came from the Roman libra, meaning scales or balances

oz (for “ounce”) came from medieval Italian onza, meaning twelfth of a Roman pound

lb with tilde above it (which was used to show a contraction), when written in haste, looked like the hash sign (#); combined with Latin pondo it became the “pound sign”

— The ampersand (@) started as Pompeian graffiti, later becoming part of the alphabet: “X, Y, Z, and per se (by itself) and” – i.e. “ampersand”

— The dagger (†), called obelos (Greek for “roasting spit”) was originally a straight line that marked superfluous lines in a text

— The asterisk (*) (from Greek asteriskos for “little star”) was used for marking genuine lines in Bible translation as opposed to added or mistranslated one

— The em dash (—) was used to censor names or curses, so “dash” became its own epithet

— Exclamation points on early typewriters were made with a period and apostrophe

— There were such things as the commash ,— and semicolash :— but they have faded from use

— Double hyphen (- -) instead of em dash was standard on typewriters; practice proliferated with spread of comics

The Word Exchange


Warning: Here be minor spoilers.

I collect cool words. It started with Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition: words like calumny, bugbear, abstemious, and postprandial popped out as I read that great history of Prohibition a few years ago, and I wanted to remember them, so I wrote them down. I’ve done that with my reading ever since, including with The Word Exchange, a new novel from Alena Graedon (out on April 8).

Fitting for a novel about dictionaries and language, Graedon was dropping cool words all over the place. I was racking up words I wanted to look up later and try to remember for future reference. But then something weird happened.

The Word Exchange is about the near-future, when the printed word and the things that house it (libraries, bookstores, magazines) have become obsolete thanks to the Meme, an iPhone-esque device that anticipates its user’s needs and intuitively delivers information. The Meme has become so thoroughly integrated into everyday life that users no longer need to remember word definitions; the Meme knows them and can retrieve them immediately. Because everyone is so dependent on their Meme for almost everything, including basic word definitions, they trust implicitly whatever the Meme tells them.

But something foul is afoot with Synchronic, the company that manufactures the Memes. For one, it has started buying words and creating new ones for their online marketplace called the Word Exchange. By creating their own repository from which the Memes pull their data, Synchronic’s users become locked in to the company’s proprietary language, which continues to expand with new user-created words that mysteriously (or not so mysteriously) begin taking the place of known words. In other words (ha!), Synchronic’s Meme isn’t freely delivering word definitions from the public domain; it’s selling an inferior product when its users could get better stuff for free. But in the Meme’s seamless digital ecosystem, quicker is easier than better.

Synchronic’s newest device, the Nautilus, takes the next logical step: it’s an electro-biological headpiece that integrates with the user’s brain on the cellular level, allowing for direct and instantaneous communication with the Internet. It would also further meld Synchronic’s manufactured language with its users’ own speech patterns. But that becomes a problem: a new epidemic, dubbed “word flu,” starts infecting Meme and Nautilus users’ speech with artificially manufactured words and wreaking havoc on their bodies.

And this is where the weird began for me. I had written down about a dozen cool words I wanted to remember, like amanuensisouroborosken, and variegated. Then I ran into a new word I was about to write down when I recognized that it wasn’t real. It was a Synchronic™ word, so to speak—a word created and sold by this secretive company that had snuck into the vocabulary of someone infected with the word flu. Until this moment, I had been an outside observer of the novel’s narrative, watching the characters navigate the shadowy goings-on in this vaguely dystopian near-future. But then I suddenly had a linguistic object lesson that made the novel much more present and prescient.

As a word-themed dystopian thriller, The Word Exchange is right up my (dark) alley. Graedon has a knack for description, though I ironically was most put off by the technical side of her writing style, i.e. an over-reliance on the em dash. Incredibly pedantic, I know, but such is the life of an armchair grammarian. Perhaps this and other choices were conscious and character-driven; if so, very well then. By the look of her Facebook page, Graedon has taken on a kind of skeptical techno-prophetess role to promote the book and guide the discussion around its highly relevant and pressing themes. She can certainly count me as a supporter in that regard.