From 'F-Bomb' To 'Photobomb,' How The Dictionary Keeps Up With English

Apr 19, 2017
Originally published on April 20, 2017 2:34 pm

In 2017 alone, Merriam-Webster added more than 1,000 words to its dictionary. Noah Webster himself might have struggled to define these new English terms — such as binge-watch, humblebrag, photobomb, NSFW, truther, face-palm and listicle.

But language is a "living thing," says lexicographer Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster — and it's constantly shifting in use and meaning.

"A lot of times people assume that English as we speak it is something that was curated maybe by some dudes in frilly shirts back in the 1700s," Stamper explains. "But in fact, a language is ... always influenced by the people who come in and speak it or come in and conquer it."

Stamper's new book, Word by Word, describes the painstaking process of keeping the dictionary up to date. Five years ago, for instance, Merriam-Webster added the term f-bomb to its pages — an addition that reflected, Stamper says, the term's widespread, sustained and meaningful use in society.

"People assume that ... there's boundaries set around [the English language], and that all the good stuff is on the inside and everything on the outside is bad or not worth using," she says. "But it's all worth using, and all of it is required to make the language flourish."


Interview Highlights

On the criteria for adding a word to the dictionary

There are three criteria for entry. The first is widespread use, which means a word needs to be used all over the place and in all sorts of different kinds of places. So if a word is used in VIBE magazine and The Wall Street Journal, that's widespread use. Or if a word is used in California and then it's used in South Africa, that's widespread use. ...

[The] second is sustained use. So a word needs to actually have kind of a long shelf life, because most words come into the language and either don't have much written use for a long time, or they have a lot of written use and then they drop out [of] use for 10 or 20 years. So we like to see some sustained usage, to make sure that it's sort of settled into the language.

Then the third criterion is meaningful use, which means the word has to have a meaning, which sounds patently ridiculous, but there are a handful of words that show up in print that just don't have a lexical meaning.

On how context really helps

Sometimes you need to show a word as it's used in the wild, and if you can find a really good citation that does that, it's helpful, because the way that we learn language is through context. Language isn't in these little discreet boxes like we present it in the dictionary. You don't have a word that just exists on its own with no context around it. So context is always really important. The more context you can give someone, the better.

On tracking down a word's first-known written use

It's kind of a wild lexical goose chase. So one of the things that we do is we will find first dates of written use first by going through our own in-house citation database, and sometimes we have that citation there. Other times what we have to do is ... start scouring other kinds of databases for the use, and honestly now that things are online it's so much easier to do.

So you can go to a big database like LexisNexis and do a search for "f-bomb" that's targeted between certain dates. Sometimes ... someone has mailed us a citation. ... "F-bomb" was first used [about] Gary Carter, who was a baseball player who was not known for swearing, but who [said the word "f***"] once and that made enough news that they needed a way to say what word he used and so they came up with "f-bomb." So finding these citations of first written use is really kind of [a] needle in a haystack.

On the careful deliberation that went into entering the racial slur n***** into the dictionary

This is a word that people have written books about; this is a word that you could do a book-length treatment of. ... It's not just fraught for lexicographers; it's fraught for everybody. There are debates within the African-American community about whether the word should be used or not. There are debates among people outside of the African-American community about whether this should be used or not. ...

This all gets down to intention and being in the middle of some of the most painful interactions that people have lexically. ... We tend to be very introverted and shy people and we tend not to like being in the middle of any interaction if we can help it. But this interaction in particular ... wherein a word is used to either dehumanize or rehumanize somebody ... when you're tracking the word you also have to take into account everything that goes underneath of that. It's almost impossible to put that in writing.

Radio producers Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner and Web producers Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest bears some responsibility for getting the expression F-bomb in the dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which is to say Kory Stamper's job as a lexicographer, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, isn't about policing the language, it's about monitoring the changing ways we use language so that she can add new words and modify the definition and usage of old ones. She's written a new book called "Word By Word: The Secret Life Of Dictionaries."

Kory Stamper, welcome to FRESH AIR.

KORY STAMPER: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: So how does a new word get added to the dictionary? What's the criteria?

STAMPER: So there are three criteria for entry. The first is widespread use, which means a word needs to be used all over the place in all sorts of different kinds of places. So if a word is used in Vibe magazine and in The Wall Street Journal, that's widespread use. Or if a word is used in California and then it's used in South Africa, that's widespread use. So that's the first criterion. The second is sustained use. So a word needs to actually have kind of a long shelf life because most words come into the language and either don't have much written use for a long time or they have a lot of written use and then they drop out of use for 10 or 20 years.

So we like to see some sustained usage to make sure that it's sort of settled into the language. And then the third criterion is meaningful use, which means that the word has to have a meaning, which sounds patently ridiculous. But there are a handful of words that show up in print that just don't have a lexical meaning.

GROSS: What's a good example of a word that you decided to add to the dictionary?

STAMPER: Wow, a good example of a word I decided to add. Let me think. Oh, I added bodice ripper to the dictionary.

GROSS: Oh, really?

STAMPER: That's one I added (laughter).

GROSS: Please define.

(LAUGHTER)

STAMPER: I don't even remember it anymore.

GROSS: OK, OK. I'm going to look it up.

STAMPER: OK.

GROSS: I've got the Merriam-Webster website open...

STAMPER: OK.

GROSS: ...On my computer over here. So I'm going to look up bodice ripper, which is officially two words. And here we go. A historical or a gothic romance typically featuring scenes in which the heroine is subjected to violence.

STAMPER: Yeah, that sounds about right.

GROSS: Hence the ripping of her bodice.

STAMPER: Exactly.

GROSS: OK, it's first known use - 1978. Wow, I thought it dated earlier than that.

STAMPER: Yeah it's...

GROSS: Because people don't talk about bodices anymore, but I guess in those novels, they do because...

STAMPER: Right, because they're historical.

GROSS: They're historical.

STAMPER: So even if they're set in the 18th century, they're 19th century. Bodices are a big thing.

GROSS: So what made you decide to add bodice ripper? Were you reading romance novels for your own enjoyment or were you reading them to see what language are they using?

STAMPER: (Laughter) No, you know, it was pretty boring and prosaic. I was doing defining on the addenda for our unabridged dictionary. And I happened to get the batch in B, the letter B, that had all the citations for bodice ripper in it. And as I was going through the different words in the batch, I came across this one. And I thought, well, we've got tons and tons of use for the word - and all over the place. So even though bodice rippers themselves, you know, I don't actually know that bodice rippers would call themselves bodice rippers.

I don't know if that's the official name of the genre. But we do have lots and lots of evidence for bodice ripper used in - I think one of my favorite citations was it ended up being used in Science News for some strange reason. Who knows why?

GROSS: Can I nitpick (laughter)?

STAMPER: Yes, you can nitpick.

GROSS: So a historical or Gothic romance typically featuring scenes in which the heroine is subjected to violence. Now, if the heroine was, like, whipped or tortured, that would be violence but it wouldn't be a bodice ripper. I think the bodice ripper implies that the heroine is taken by force by a handsome leading man, who she secretly desires and submits and is kind of enjoying it. I mean, that's kind of, like, the bodice ripper thing, right?

STAMPER: I think so. Though you know what's interesting is if you look at a lot of the citational evidence for it, it's just not clear if some of those - I mean, bodice rippers do usually feature a heroine who wants a hero. And the taking is tempestuous. But there's also instances of bodice rippers where you've got the heroine who wants a hero and there's - and is subjected to violence from an anti-hero.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

STAMPER: And then what do you consider to be violence? Is that kind of - is this tempestuous taking a violent thing? Is it - even if it's consensual or non - I mean, yeah, even if it's consensual...

GROSS: This is what makes your job hard...

STAMPER: Right.

GROSS: ...Among other things.

(LAUGHTER)

STAMPER: Right.

GROSS: Now, are you also the lexicographer responsible for getting the word F-bomb in the dictionary?

STAMPER: I think that it was one that I had proposed, and I don't know that I ended up drafting the final entry for that.

GROSS: Why did you propose it?

STAMPER: Because it's been in use a lot. And I think that I decided to propose it for entry - what was I reading? I was reading - it might have been something like First Things or Commonweal - you know, some sort of very stately staid, you know, scholarly kind of religious magazine. And it used the word F-bomb. And I just thought, OK, if Commonweal or First Things is using the word F-bomb, then it's clearly settled in deeply enough.

It's not just something you're going to hear on, you know, "The Daily Show" or on NBC, "Good Morning America" or whatever so...

GROSS: So I'm going to read the citation...

STAMPER: OK.

GROSS: ...Without saying what the word is that it's...

STAMPER: OK.

GROSS: ...Being used in substitution for. So the definition reads that the F-bomb is (reading) the F-word used metaphorically as a euphemism, except they spell out what the F-word is in the dictionary.

STAMPER: (Laughter) Right, right.

GROSS: So - and then there's an example of its usage and that example is accidentally dropped an F-bomb on television. And it names the person who wrote that sentence or who said that sentence. Why is it important in a lot of entries to have an example that's not an example that the lexicographer came up with but an example of how it's been used in speech or in a text?

STAMPER: I think it's important because, first, you need to have some evidence, maybe, that this word is in use because you do get people who will come to the dictionary and look up a word and say, I've never heard that word before or, bleh (ph), that's not actually - that's not a good word. That's not a valid word. That shouldn't be in the dictionary. And so part of it is to show that it actually does have use. But also the other thing is that sometimes you need to show a word as it's used sort of in the wild.

And if you can find a really good citation that does that, it's helpful because the way that we learn language is through context. Language isn't in these little discrete boxes like we present it in the dictionary. You don't have a word that just exists on its own with no context around it. So context is always really important. I think the more context you can give someone, the better.

GROSS: So the first known use of the F-bomb, according to the Merriam-Webster, was in 1988. How do you find out something like that?

STAMPER: It's kind of a wild, lexical goose chase. So one of the things that we do is we will find first dates of written use first by going through our own in-house citation database. And sometimes we have that citation there. Other times, what we have to do is we have to start scouring other kinds of databases for the use. And honestly, now that things are online, it's so much easier to do. So you can go to a big database like LexisNexis and do a search for F-bomb that's targeted between certain dates.

Sometimes we find the first written use by someone has mailed us a citation or someone has written in and said, did you know that, you know - in fact, I think F-bomb was first used by Gary Carter, who was a baseball player, who was not known for swearing but dropped the F-bomb once. And that made enough news that people - they needed a way to say what word he used, and so they came up with F-bomb. So finding these citations of first written use is really kind of - it's needle in a haystack.

It just depends on what you have access to and sort of how far back you can take things. And new stuff is always coming to light. One thing that I found last year - I was looking for the word staycation. And I was doing some research...

GROSS: Oh, yeah (laughter).

STAMPER: I was doing some research on staycation, which is a word that many people think is frivolous and dumb. And sort of when we entered it into the dictionary, we got a lot of think pieces about, this is indicative of our modern culture, that we can't just, you know, bite the bullet and not take a vacation, that even when we are at home we have to call it a staycation because we're pampered and spoiled. And that was based on a lot of the use that we had, which showed it was used mostly in the '90s.

And then I happened to be doing some research in a historical newspaper database. And I found staycation dated back to 1944, where it was used - it was used in a beer ad, of all places. And staycation was presented as something you did as your patriotic duty to help preserve money. It was like having a victory garden. So that was...

GROSS: That's fascinating.

STAMPER: Yeah. So it was really fun to find. And that happens all the time when you're finding the dates of first written use. You might think, oh, well, we've pegged it pretty much to the second half of the 20th century. And then you run across these random little things in historical archives somewhere.

GROSS: I use the word staycation a lot when I decide to take a week and just, like, stay home and just like not (laughter)...

STAMPER: Right (laughter)...

GROSS: ...Not be on deadline and just, you know, be around.

STAMPER: Yeah.

GROSS: Maybe even see a friend.

STAMPER: It's a handy word.

GROSS: It's a great word. I love that word. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster and author of the new book "Word By Word: The Secret Life Of Dictionaries." We're going to take a short break here and then be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "ALPHABET ST.")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is lexicographer Kory Stamper, author of the new book "Word By Word: The Secret Life Of Dictionaries." She's affiliated with the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. She's an associate editor.

So I'm going to ask you about the word that Merriam-Webster says now ranks as almost certainly the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English, a term expressive of hatred and bigotry. And that's the N word. I won't say the word. And you have a good blog post about this word. Did you have to work on this word ever?

STAMPER: I had to look at the word for revision at one point a while ago. It was for a different dictionary for people who were learning English as a foreign language. And I was looking at it sort of as a second pass. So I was taking a look at it as a copy editor would have taken a look at it.

GROSS: So let me read the official Merriam-Webster definition and then we'll talk about it. (Reading) One, offensive, see usage paragraph below. Used as an insulting and contemptuous term for a black person. Two, offensive used as an insulting and contemptuous term for a member of any dark-skinned race. Three, now often offensive, a member of a class or a group of people who are systematically subjected to discrimination and unfair treatment.

And the example is, it's time for somebody to lead all of America's N-words, all the people who feel left out of the political process. And that sentence is attributed to Ron Dellums. OK, so one of the things that makes that word so complicated is that - in part because of rap, where the word is used frequently and often has become used as a word of almost affection that one black person can use to describe another. It's a word that's really so dependent on who's using it and what their intent is. So as a lexicographer, is that something you can deal with in the definitions or not? Like, how do you deal with that?

STAMPER: Within definitions, it's almost impossible to deal with that, again because we deal with print, and we're presenting information in writing. And that means that it's really difficult to give an exhaustive history of the word, of all of its various uses, of all of the ways it's been used as a slur, of all the ways it's been reclaimed. One thing we can do, now that dictionaries are online, is we can add these long usage paragraphs. And that's how we've chosen to discuss the history of the word. And even in that usage paragraph, we don't give all of the information that we could.

This is a word that people have written books about. This is a word that you could do a book-length treatment of. And it's a word that is - it's not just fraught for lexicographers. It's fraught for everybody. There are debates within the African-American community about whether the word should be used or not. There are debates among people outside of the African-American community about whether this should be used or not. There are debates among various people of dark-skinned ethnicity groups or races about whether the word, as applied to them, is a sort of a valid slur, whether they're able to reclaim it.

And this all gets down to intention and being in the middle of some of the most painful interactions that people have lexically. And that's just something that lexicographers have a really hard time doing - I mean, in part because we just are - we tend to be very introverted and shy people. We tend not to like being in the middle of any interaction, if we can help it. But this interaction in particular, the interaction wherein a word is used to either dehumanize or re-humanize somebody, is just - it's a core response. And when you're tracking the word, you also have to take into account everything that goes underneath of that. And it's almost impossible to put that in writing.

GROSS: You got a letter from - or an email from a dictionary reader, who was upset to find that word in the dictionary and wrote to you, I understand why you put it there, but I'm thinking of my 10-year-old daughter. The N-word shouldn't exist for her. She should not have to confront that in a dictionary, which is supposed to tell her what words really mean. So what's your response to that?

STAMPER: Oh, when I got that email, it literally knocked the breath out of me because I also have children. And I also think, you know, there are lots of words in the world that I don't ever want leveled at my kids or want my kids using. There are lots of words that I wish didn't exist at all. And to see that kind of pain just stated so plainly and very eloquently was really affecting. And so I had to stop and think, OK, well, I'm a parent. But I'm also a lexicographer. And I have to say, you know, here's the thing. This is what this word actually means.

And just because it's in the dictionary doesn't mean that we are promoting its use. It's a word that I myself would never use. And yet, my job is to record the language. And this word has just sort of cut this wide swath through the language. For me to not include it would not get rid of the word's use at all. You know, some people think, well, if we do away with the slurs in the dictionary, then no one will ever learn them, which is a great sentiment but just not how language works.

I mean, I chuckle sometimes when parents write in and say, I can't believe you've included profanity in the dictionary. Now my children will discover what, you know, the F-word means. And I - my first thought is, your kid already knows what the F-word means. If they're looking it up in the dictionary, it's to see if it's entered, not because they don't know what it means.

GROSS: You've written, the language belongs to everyone - the oppressed and the oppressor. Would you elaborate on that as a lexicographer?

STAMPER: Sure. I think that a lot of times, people assume that English as we speak it is something that was curated, you know, maybe by some dudes in frilly shirts back in the 1700s, and that whatever they've come up with as being right or good or true or the best practices of English, that's what English is. But in fact, a language is a living thing. And a language is always influenced by the people who come in and speak it or come in and conquer it.

So English originally, in its earliest incarnations, looked kind of like drunk, sideways German. And it was brought to England by conquerors. And then it settled in England. And then the French conquered the British Isles, and English changed back in the 11th century to incorporate more French. But it didn't get rid of the language of the conquered. It didn't get rid of that language of the Anglo-Saxons. And it's been that way ever since. You know, certainly people in power, speakers in power, influence the language. But speakers who don't have power also influence the language.

The waves of immigrants who came to the U.S. through the 17, 18, 1900s have left a huge mark on the language, mostly in food. So if you have a bagel or you have a bialy or you have enchiladas or you have chop suey, that's all due to these groups of immigrants who came in and were often despised and hated and were often sort of marginalized in their own way. Even - even the idea that you can reclaim a slur, as we were talking about earlier, is - that is the oppressed taking the power of the language into their own hands. And there's room in English for that.

GROSS: My guest is Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster and author of the new book, "Word By Word: The Secret Life Of Dictionaries." After a break, we'll talk about how Merriam-Webster changed the definition of marriage to include same-sex marriage. And she'll give us permission to split infinitives and end sentences with prepositions. Thank you, Kory. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY OWENS' "STUFFY TURKEY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Kory Stamper, an associate editor and lexicographer at Merriam-Webster. Her new book, "Word By Word: The Secret Life Of Dictionaries," is about some of the surprising issues you have to deal with working at a dictionary and some of the controversies. She's had to write many entries for words and is responsible for getting some new words added.

Well, one of your words (laughter) - was one of your amplifications of a word...

STAMPER: Yes.

GROSS: ...Was marriage. I think it was you who added an explanation that marriage can apply to two people of the same sex.

STAMPER: Well, I didn't add it to the entry. I basically did our press release stating after people found the entry. When people discovered that that subsense for marriage had been entered in the dictionary, I was our managing editor in charge of the correspondence. And so when people wrote in, I'm the one who gave this long explanation about why it merited entry into the dictionary.

GROSS: And did people say that you were, like, promoting gay marriage in the dictionary? You should not promote gay marriage?

STAMPER: Oh, yeah, absolutely. People were furious. The people who wrote in, for the most part, were absolutely outraged. I had people tell me I was indoctrinating their children. I had people tell me that Noah Webster was spinning in his grave. I had people tell me that God was going to visit judgment upon the office and me for allowing this to come into print.

I had some people who wrote in and were furious because gay marriage was not legal. And how can you enter something that's illegal into the dictionary? At which point, I had to point out that murder is also entered into the dictionary.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STAMPER: But - so yeah. It - marriage was a word that touched off a huge, huge backlash of user comments and emails.

GROSS: Somebody who responded to your expanded usage of marriage was Stephen Colbert. And I know you loved that.

STAMPER: It was great.

GROSS: Why don't we hear what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEPHEN COLBERT: Turns out my old nemesis is back. Of course, I'm talking about the dictionary.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: First off, this has got to be, by far, the worst book I've ever read.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: The ending is so predictable. I mean, zymosan - an insoluble, largely polysaccharide fraction of yeast cell walls? Oh, I didn't see that one coming back in M.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Now, I recently learned that Merriam-Webster has changed the definition of marriage. It now includes the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage. That means gay marriage. You know, I'm beginning to suspect that Merriam and Webster were conjugating more than just irregular verbs.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: The most sinister part is, folks, Merriam-Webster made this change back in 2003, all hush-hush. And it went largely unnoticed until a conservative website recently brought it to light, which means, for the past six years of my marriage, I may have been gay married and not known it.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: I mean, I've had my suspicions. After all, our first song was YMCA.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: But I'm not going to let these same-sexicographers (ph) ruin other straight words the way they did drag, bear and Manwich.

GROSS: So that was Stephen Colbert from "The Colbert Report" era.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You didn't know that was coming, did you?

STAMPER: I did not.

GROSS: Were you just watching it at home?

STAMPER: I was - well, I actually had a coworker send the link to me from Comedy Central in the midst of this big email campaign that I was responding to. And I - it was - he said nothing. He just sent - the subject line was about 25 exclamation marks, and then the body of the email was just a link.

And I started watching it and initially panicked a little bit when Stephen Colbert says, you know, my nemesis is back, the dictionary. But then as I watched it, it was so wonderful to have, A, somebody with a sense of humor respond to this because it had been weeks and weeks of humorlessness. But it was also just a great - yeah.

I finished watching it, and I left my office and I felt changed on a molecular level. It was great.

GROSS: Very affirming.

STAMPER: Yes, it was very affirming. Thank you, Stephen Colbert.

GROSS: So you say no one really speaks standard English. Can you explain that?

STAMPER: So standard English, what we call standard English is one of many dialects of English. So dialects are kind of like subsets of a language or little sub-languages of a broader language. And standard English is a dialect that's based on a written ideal.

So standard English, as we know it, is really a written dialect. It's actually more accurate to call it formal written English. And because it's based on this written dialect, it's not a dialect that anyone grows up speaking. The way that we acquire language is first through speech and then by writing. So spoken language is primary.

Now there's lots of overlap between the dialects of English that we grow up speaking and standard written English. But the fact is, you have to learn standard written English. That's why you have grammar lessons. That's why you have language arts teachers. That's why we all have to learn how to diagram sentences or used to learn to diagram sentences.

So the fact is, you don't grow up speaking standard English. You grow up speaking another dialect of English, one that probably has a fair amount of overlap with standard written English. And then later, when you learn to write, you acquire standard English.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kory Stamper. She's a lexicographer, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster and author of the new book "Word By Word". Let's take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BELLAR & THE AS-IS ENSEMBLE'S "HOT BOX MAGIC")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Kory Stamper, author of the new book "Word By Word: The Secret Life Of Dictionaries." She knows a lot about dictionaries because she's an associate editor at Merriam-Webster. You write, (reading) many of the things presented to us as rules are really just of-the-moment preferences of people who have had the opportunity to get their opinions published.

And those opinions end up being reinforced and repeated down the ages as truth. And you say on National Grammar Day, you ritually burn a copy of the style guide "Strunk & White."

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what do you object to about "Strunk & White," which is really a bible to a lot of people?

STAMPER: It is. And, you know, it started out - Strunk...

GROSS: It's a style and usage guide.

STAMPER: It is a style and usage guide. And it started out as just kind of an informal list that William Strunk kept to help tighten up prose. And then E.B. White in the '50s amended it. My biggest issues with "Strunk & White" are that people approach it like a bible. And a lot of its usage is presented as diktat. It's - you will have better prose if you do this. So don't use adverbs. That's one that people whip out all the time. It's in "Strunk & White."

Adverbs are indispensable. I mean, they are one of the core parts of speech of English. And the point behind don't use adverbs is not that adverbs themselves are bad, but that you want tight prose, you can often get rid of extra words. And that's why you need an editor. So there are lots of usage rules that if you investigate them, how they came about, how they've been perpetuated and then compare them even to the best practices of English, which is what these usage rules often claim to be based on, you find that these rules are just sort of one guy's sense of what is elegant and what is not elegant.

GROSS: People also turn, I think, to usage and style guides for how to know when to say which and when to say that or who and whom. Do you care?

STAMPER: (Laughter) I - you know, in speech, no, I really don't care.

GROSS: In speech, you don't, but on the page, you do.

STAMPER: It depends on the context of the page. This was very interesting for me. When I wrote the book, I had an editing pass done. And I use a lot of conjunctions like as and since instead of because. So I would say X, Y, Z, as she had been doing that since the morning. And the copy editor crossed it out and said, no, because, just use because. And I said, well, that's kind of weird. Why would you do that? That doesn't make any sense.

And so, of course, because I am that kind of nerd, I started looking into the history of so where does this prohibition against the conjunctive as and the conjunctive since come from? And there are cases that are presented that have some merit where if you use since, that is an issue of time. That might be confusing to people. As is often seen as comparison. That can be confusing to people. I said, OK, well, OK, I can get that. But if you read the sentence, it really is clear.

You just don't need to worry about it too much. But, honestly, I let most of those changes stand because I thought, well, if there's any chance that this could be ambiguous, then it's better just to go with because. So in speech, I don't police people's speech. I think that's jerkery (ph) of the highest order when people do that. And in writing, it just depends on the context.

GROSS: You write that some rules are really based on Latin and not English.

STAMPER: Yeah.

GROSS: I didn't know that. I mean, what - can you give us an example?

STAMPER: So the best-known one is the no terminal proposition rules. So that's the don't end sentences with a preposition. And that was based on Latin grammar because in Latin, you can't end a sentence with a preposition because of the way the word order is done. Another one is no splitting infinitives. You can't split an infinitive in Latin because the infinitive is one word. And so a lot of these rules came into being in the 17 and 1800s mostly because the educated men at the time, who were writing these kinds of usage guides or who were setting some of these usage rules, all of them, you know, knew Latin.

And at that point, there was a neoclassical revival. And so Latin and Greek, in particular, were seen as the height of elegance and the height of erudition and education. So you can't end a sentence with a preposition if you adhere to Latin rules. The problem is is that Latin is not English and English is not Latin. So in English, we have a two-word infinitive. And you can split it. And we have been splitting them for a long time. And in English, you can end the sentence with a preposition.

In fact, that's one of the grammatical hallmarks of English is that you can stick a preposition at the end and it's OK. We understand what it means.

GROSS: That's something I won't put up with.

STAMPER: (Laughter) Right, exactly.

GROSS: As an example.

STAMPER: As an example.

GROSS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So how did you learn that, that some of the rules that we're supposed to follow aren't really rules that should apply to English, that come from Latin, which is a really different language?

STAMPER: A lot of that was done just in researching for various articles or word history articles for our website. And then I would - because, again, I am this kind of nerd - I would go back and look at the primary source materials. So most of it just came from researching these things or people would write in and ask questions. Why can't I split an infinitive? And so I would start going through the usage material. So I'm reading usage books back to the 1800s to see, well, who's the person who came up with this and why?

And almost always, you could trace things like that back to someone felt that English was just not as elegant as Latin. And so to make it more like Latin, we're going to give it a little bit of Latin grammar.

GROSS: So you have two children?

STAMPER: I have two children.

GROSS: When they were learning language, and then when they got a little older and started to use more, like, vernacular language, more slang, did you try to correct them or - I know you don't like to police people's language and you don't edit your children's social media. But, you know, what rules did you try to uphold when they were speaking to you in the house?

STAMPER: Oh, boy. Even though I say I don't police people's speech, I am a mom. And mom's police their children's speech because that's what moms do.

GROSS: That's also how people learn - how children learn, right?

STAMPER: Right, this is - yeah, this is part of how kids learn is you learn, OK, you don't say, you know, I done that. You say, I have done that. Oh, OK. I would do that. And I don't anymore. My children are older. But earlier, for instance, I live outside of Philadelphia. And I had a hard time when we moved because my youngest daughter picked up a regionalism that's very common here and I had never heard before. And that is to drop the particle after done.

So I would say, are you finished with your homework? And she would say, yeah, I'm done my homework, which to me just sounds as foreign as outer space. You're done with your homework. You're not done your homework. But that's this really distinctive dialect marker for this region. And it's said by everybody of all socioeconomic brackets and all educational brackets. And so for her, that was completely normal. And it drove me bonkers (laughter).

I would keep saying, you're done with, you're done with, you're done with. And she still says I'm done my homework. And she has learned that if she's speaking to her grandparents, who are not natives of this area, she has to say I'm done with my homework. So yeah, I mean, you know, that urge to correct people dies hard, especially when they're your own kids.

GROSS: So do you feel like as a parent and lexicographer you're seeing how language changes generationally by listening to your own children?

STAMPER: Oh, absolutely. My youngest daughter just turned 17. And I'm the carpool mom for one of her activities. And what I will do is I will wait until all the teenagers get in the car and they get talking and they have sort of, you know, done the first five minutes of being used to being in the car with mom. And then I will listen to the language that they use, the slang that they use. And as their season progressed, I got more and more comfortable with interrupting them and saying - wait a minute. Wait, what's that mean? - or, oh, what do you - oh, so you say, you know, she was nasty af (ph) instead of A-F. Is that how you say it? You say af? You don't say A-F?

GROSS: A-F?

STAMPER: A-F, as F-word.

GROSS: Oh, oh, oh, right.

STAMPER: Yep.

GROSS: Got it.

STAMPER: Also af.

(LAUGHTER)

STAMPER: So I do. I get to watch how quickly the cycle of language changes, not just slang but even the ways that we communicate with each other. You know, lots of people sort of throw their hands up in dismay and say, oh, kids these days, they're always on their phone. They can't have a conversation. And I am happy to say that's absolutely not true. I can sit in a car with kids, and they have conversations. And they use language that is vibrant and interesting. And they use standard English just fine too.

GROSS: Kory Stamper, thank you so much for talking with us.

STAMPER: Thanks for having me, Terry. This has been great.

GROSS: Kory Stamper is an associate editor at Merriam-Webster and author of the new book "Word By Word: The Secret Life Of Dictionaries." After a break, our TV critic David Bianculli will review the new season of "Fargo" and Bill Nye the Science Guy's new science series for adults called "Bill Nye Saves The World." This is FRESH AIR.

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