Mirriam Webster’s Kory Stamper explains just how words end up making the jump from the popular vernacular to the dictionary.
If you’ve ever used "y’all" in a business setting, you might be get an odd look from your colleagues but you might actually be helping the word get into the dictionary. Mirriam Webster’s Kory Stamper explains just how words end up making the jump from the popular vernacular to the dictionary. Sometimes society just keeps saying words wrong until they’re right (‘nuclear’ vs ’nuculer’). And sometimes these small decisions make a big difference. Which would explain the use of "irregardless" in the Supreme Court. Join us as Kory explains us the big difference between being a prescriptivist and a descriptivist.
From olde English dogs, to immoral women, to weak men, to irritating women, to its prideful reclaiming, to ownership over a woman (there's a theme here), the word "b*tch" has a long and fascinating history, and it's all stored in the archives of the Merriam-Webster lexicography department.
Language is an evolving animal. That's why the world needs lexicographers, to update dictionaries so they reflect the language of the time. This paper trail leaves a fascinating historical record, one that Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper decided travel down when tasked with updating the definition of the word "b*tch". Stamper noticed there was no label in the dictionary that marked the word as a pejorative. It has meant a lot of different things since it first came into use, sometime before the 12th century, as a term for female dog. Stamper runs through the history of the people this term has applied to, its varied uses, and the muted, bureaucratic struggle that kept it from being marked as an offensive term until the 1990s.
Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, spends all day reading citations and trying to define words like “Monophysite" and “bodice ripper." She has been doing this sort of thing since 1998, long enough to remember blue galleys, grease pencils, rubber stamps, and inter-office mail. Most recently, she's gained some notoriety for being one of three editors who write, edit, and appear in the “Ask the Editor" video series. (Pursuant to the video series: yes, her hair changes colors, and no, she will not marry you). In addition to working on definitions and (patiently, steadfastly) answering the editorial email, she sometimes travels around the country giving talks and lectures on things that only other word nerds would be interested in.
When she is not doing the word-nerd thing, she does other nerdy things, including knitting, baking, and live sound engineering. But she will probably not bore you to death with those things here.
You can read more of Kory's blabbing on the Merriam-Webster blog and in the Guardian, where British commentors endlessly complain on every column she has written there. She also occasionally contributes to Strong Language, a blog about foul language.
Her debut nonfiction book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, was published in March 2017. Publishers Weekly called it “occasionally profane," which is delightful. She's working on another nonfiction book for Pantheon/Knopf, and that will also likely be occasionally profane.