Word Matters Podcast

Episode 100: How did we get here?

Word Matters, episode 100

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Hosted by Emily Brewster, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, how did we get here? I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Emily Brewster: It's our 100th episode, which seemed like a good occasion to answer a listener question of a more personal type. How did we—that is we three editors—get here? A listener writes with this rather personal question. "What path did you take to become a dictionary editor/lexicographer? I can't imagine a little kid saying, 'I want to edit words when I grow up,' although I'd give major props to any kid who did say that." Well, this episode is our 100th Word Matters episodes.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh my goodness.

Emily Brewster: I thought it would be a good occasion for us to get a little personal and just answer this question. How did we each get here? Peter, you've been here the longest. Will you answer the question first?

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, well, first of all, I want to give some acknowledgement to the premise of the question. I can't imagine a little kid saying, "I want to edit words." I agree with you, dear listener. It never occurred to me. I didn't know this was a job. However, I'm aware of a couple of our colleagues in the field, notably Erin McKean, I believe who, I think, as a child knew that she was interested in dictionaries; and at least one of our colleagues at Merriam-Webster through the years has told me the same thing. I was astonished to hear those things, because I really thought, like many people, that dictionaries weren't written, they just existed. They were eternal. They were always there. I might have even thought that they never changed, which is something that I've learned about since.

Peter Sokolowski: No, I had a very different path. But I think, and I'm a little self-conscious to talk about it in a way, but another way it might make sense to illuminate this, and I'll say why. Once on a tour of our editorial offices, I was tagging along, and our now-retired president, John Morse, was giving this tour. He said, "To do this job, you have to have a mind that is a trivia trap." I just sort of smiled. I thought about it a little bit more, and I realized, oh my goodness, he's talking about me. But not just me, but all of us in one form or another. I realized that that is good preparation for dictionary writing, having that kind of mind that collects things, lists things, remembers things. As it happens, I was a French major. I went to school in France. It became an obsession. I just really wanted to be good at this, and I wanted to be a French professor.

Peter Sokolowski: I did go to grad school. I published some articles. I was going on to a doctorate program. I had just finished a master's degree, and I was helping a friend move from the University of Massachusetts. We had a car full of stuff, and we had to stop at the graduate center or the alumni center, and I was just waiting in the waiting room, this was before the internet, and there was a newsletter from Mount Holyoke College, which is a nearby college, for alums. Part of the back of it was job opportunities for recent graduates, and one of them was for a job that was described as translator/editor for the French language, for French, at Merriam-Webster, and that's all there was. I was intrigued. I was on my way to go back to France to teach English for a year, just to kind of bone up and just to be, what they call [foreign language 00:03:30], a TA for English at a French university.

Peter Sokolowski: But, I applied for the job. I remember my first question when I came into the office, which was, "Don't you already have a French and English dictionary?" But they said, "No. In point of fact, we don't, and we're going to write it from scratch. We're going to hire a group of people, and they're going to start in August and we're going to put this together. We're going to do two parallel dictionaries, a Spanish-English, and a French-English dictionary, and we decided that the English sides of these two would be so similar and the work would be so similar that you'll all share an office." That's it.

Peter Sokolowski: I just got the job and I started. I did tell the grad program that, this is the professional piece of it, I was told it would take two years to complete this dictionary. I thought, well, if I become a French professor, that would be a really interesting project intrinsically, but also good on my CV and good background and something I was interested in doing. Of course the grad program said, "Sure, we'll wait two years. You can come back then." Of course, axiomatically, this project took six years and took much longer, and I never obviously went back, and here I am almost 28 years later.

Emily Brewster: Wow. When I started at Merriam-Webster, the bilingual department was still in the downstairs-

Peter Sokolowski: In the basement.

Emily Brewster: On the garden floor, yes, in the garden floor, AKA the basement. That was the only room where editors would have full conversations with one another. There were only whispers everywhere else.

Peter Sokolowski: That was deliberate. That had been the kitchen to the building. There was a kitchen for the staff in 1940, when the building was built. That kitchen area had been used as just a kind of storage closet for old chairs and desks. It was cleared out, they put a carpet in it, they painted it. Yes, it was determined that we should be in a room together because we would have to talk to each other. The reason for that was, and it's kind of an interesting one, writing a dictionary from scratch is not easy, but it's also not something many people knew about, because almost all of our dictionaries, if you think about it, are revisions of preceding additions. This was the first time that anyone living in 1994 had worked on a dictionary that had never existed before. We were writing something from scratch. We had to create something new. It was true, we did have to confer. I'm glad that we had a little space to chat. Sometimes six of us in that room, sometimes two or three, but it was a bustling area of activity, for sure.

Emily Brewster: You were having a different kind of fun than we were having upstairs.

Ammon Shea: Emily, you have also been here for more than 20 years. Right?

Emily Brewster: Yes, that's true. My story also involves UMass Amherst, which is just 20 miles north of Springfield. I was graduating with my undergraduate degree in linguistics and philosophy, and I was interested in going on to graduate school, but I knew that I needed to take a break between the two. I didn't know what I was going to do. I was thinking about what programs I might apply to, but I was also thinking like, what kind of job am I going to get in the meanwhile? My advisor in the linguistics department, Kyle Johnson, my syntax professor, said to me, "Merriam-Webster is just down the road in Springfield." I knew that Merriam-Webster was a dictionary publisher, but I had no idea that they were a local dictionary publisher.

Emily Brewster: I knew nothing about lexicography. In my linguistics education, lexicography was not mentioned at all. My education was very strong to syntax, and because I was doing philosophy also, it was a lot of syntax and logic. There was actually nothing about the meanings of words in my linguistic studies. It was about the formation of words, for sure, and the structures of sentences and phrases, and the structures of words. But, there was nothing lexicographical at all. I was immediately intrigued, and I called Merriam-Webster.

Emily Brewster: I somehow got connected with Steve Perrault, the Director of Defining, and I asked him if I could come in and do an information interview. He said no, I could not come in and do an information interview, but he said we could have a 10 minute phone conversation in a week. We scheduled that. During this conversation, he told me that lexicography was very quiet, solitary, lonely, lonely work. You just sit by yourself at a desk, basically, thinking about what words mean. I thought, wow, that sounds great. He said at the time, "We are not hiring, but if you want to submit your resume, you may, and we will keep it on file." I said, "Okay, thank you." I submitted my resume and I wrote a thank you letter, and then I called him every three months for a year.

Peter Sokolowski: Every three months.

Emily Brewster: I did, every three months, it was on my calendar. I would just say, "Hi, I'm Emily Brewster," and I would just say, "just calling to let you know that I'm still interested in the position when you're hiring. I don't mean to pester, but I continue to be interested." Finally, the editorial department was hiring and I got a call. He called me and asked me to come in for an interview.

Peter Sokolowski: He meant it when he said, "We'll keep it on file." It sounds like putting you off. Doesn't it? It sounds like, "Oh, we say this to everybody."

Emily Brewster: Right. I don't know. That is why I kept calling, is because I didn't want it to just be in a file. I wanted to actually be contacted when they were hiring.

Peter Sokolowski: Wow.

Emily Brewster: I went in for the interview, and at the interview, the Editor in Chief really, really tried to impose on me how bad this job could be.

Peter Sokolowski: Really?

Emily Brewster: I felt like that was his mission, was to really drive home what solitary mind-numbing work it was, to weed out people who were not going to be a good fit.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. There was kind of a form letter that I think I remember the five points in it. You're talking about Fred Mish, who for many years was Editor in Chief, and he enumerated these criteria, and I think partly in a way to discourage some people. I think I can remember them. He said, "In order to be a dictionary editor, you have to be," and these are his terms, "a native-born speaker of American English." Number two, you'd have to have a degree from a reputable institution. It didn't say it had to be a certain degree or a certain kind of major or anything. Three, you had to be able to sit quietly for eight hours a day. Four, you would have to submit your linguistic prejudice to the evidence before you. Five, you would have to exhibit sprachgefühl, which is a sense of appropriateness of language.

Peter Sokolowski: It's interesting to me that I can still remember those criteria. I would say, just as a footnote, that first part about being a native-born speaker of American English, I think the idea of a native speaker is a problematic one. I also feel that diversity would be enormously helpful in an office such as ours, so I think that is an old fashioned criterion that we would probably no longer recognize. But, a lot of the rest of it makes sense, because sitting quietly for eight hours a day is not for everybody.

Emily Brewster: You are listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. More on our journeys to lexicography ahead. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Peter Sokolowski: Word Matters listeners get 25% off all dictionaries and books at shop.merriam-webster.com by using the promo code matters at checkout. That's matters, M-A-T-T-E-R-S at shop.merriam-webster.com.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. For more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: Our origin stories continue.

Ammon Shea: When I got into lexicography via what I like to say is a real traditional route, I was a furniture mover from New York City with no college degree. I had a high school education and I was carrying pianos upstairs. I think that's an entirely appropriate means of getting into lexicography, because reading dictionaries is a lot easier than carrying pianos, so it lends itself well to that. But, nobody has ever asked me for my degree. I did end up getting a degree in jazz studies of all things, but nobody has ever asked if I had a degree or been interested in it in any way. Nor has it been in any way germane to the task of working on a dictionary.

Emily Brewster: Well, we just hired editors recently, and it is no longer one of our qualifications. Actually.

Peter Sokolowski: What isn't?

Ammon Shea: That's great.

Emily Brewster: The college degree.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, no kidding. That's fantastic.

Ammon Shea: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: I think that definitely you need to be a fluent speaker of the language you're defining.

Ammon Shea: Of course.

Emily Brewster: No question there, but you don't need a college degree to be a fluent speaker who has a really good sense of language and is able to analyze usage and understand what words mean.

Ammon Shea: In addition to that, I think that there is very little overlap between what colleges will teach you about lexicography and what we actually do as a dictionary. Nothing that you learn in college is likely to be of significant use to you in working on a dictionary. As I said, I came to lexicography without a college degree, though I did get one, and I was a furniture mover, and I was a furniture mover for a large portion of my adult life. I always had loved dictionaries, and I did decide at some point that I would rather not move professionally anymore, and somehow came up with the idea that somebody would buy a book about me reading the Oxford English Dictionary from start to finish and writing about what that was like, and somebody did. I got to take off from moving furniture and I got to sit around for a year just reading the OED, which was really quite enjoyable.

Peter Sokolowski: How many pages?

Ammon Shea: 21,730. That was great. That was a lovely way to spend a year. After that, I ended up then going to work for Oxford, first on the New Oxford American, and then I ended up reading work for the Oxford English Dictionary, which was also great fun because they're much more citation based. But the OED, the reason it's so long is that they try to illustrate every sense of every word with many, many citations. They always try to find the earliest use of every sense of the word. I spent a few years researching when that sense of efficacious was first used, or when that sense of play in that meaning was first used. I guess about six years ago, at the time Lisa Schneider was the head of the New York office of Merriam, and she just got in touch and asked if I would be interested in writing articles for them, which I was, and I did that for a few months. Then they asked if I wanted to come on full time.

Ammon Shea: So, not only do I have the non-traditional background here, I'm actually not lexicographer, in case you guys didn't know. I don't actually do any of the defining of words. I work on other aspects of the dictionary, and there are other people in dictionaries who do not actually just define words. There are plenty of other roles. I've never been classically trained as a lexicographer, which I think illustrates not only are there many facets of a dictionary and many aspects to working on it, many different roles, but there are certainly many different ways of getting there. Most of the people that I know, say, in working on Oxford dictionaries or other dictionaries, did not start out thinking "I want to define words." Many of them were math studies or things like that. They had a much more analytic frame of mind. A lot of different paths.

Peter Sokolowski: I think that the three of us represent totally different ways of approaching this. Some people might think, oh, you need a degree in linguistics, for example. That is important for some of the staff, but not for all. Or a degree in English literature, for example. That is hugely important for some of the staff, again, but not for all. People don't think of how important it is to have a science background, physical sciences, biological sciences, computer sciences, all of those things, because the language is so specific. For many years on our staff, you could sort of find specialists of music theory and art history and biography, different kinds of vocabulary, military, food and wine. There's all kinds of things that familiarity with will make your time at the dictionary really well spent. We need specialists as well as generalists.

Emily Brewster: Any background can be useful.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: Because the vocabulary that you have to manage and corral covers every field, so any background is useful. The tolerance for the focused quiet work is important, and really that sense of sprachgefühl, that sense of language and how it works, and an interest in it.

Ammon Shea: I like to think that, although I was missing many other qualifications, I had in spades the most salient one of all, which was that I am constitutionally disinclined to the company of others.

Peter Sokolowski: The job was traditionally, famously, a lonely one. Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, I mean, years and years and years toiling, essentially, alone. The job itself, as we knew it, especially Emily and me in the office, which was the largest lexicographical room in North America, I'm sure, was as quite as a library. John Morse used to say the work itself was the mental equivalent of taking a standardized test. Just imagine a room of 45 people, all of them taking the SAT at the same time. That's why we don't interrupt each other.

Peter Sokolowski: That's why when I started, we still had that system of sending notes that were carried twice in the morning and twice after lunch by the typing staff to your desk from another person. Because, if you're in the middle of researching a definition, trying to split the meanings of a word, trying to double check and see if this really is a new meaning or just a subset of an existing meaning, being interrupted can brighten your day, but it can also completely cause you to lose your train of thought. The ethos was a very quiet library-like one, but it was also kind of a worker bee-like one. It felt busy. I say in the past tense because we've been out of the office for a number of years at this point. A lot of us have discovered, of course, that a lot of this work we can do at home quite effectively, and we're lucky for that.

Emily Brewster: Now we can choose when we are interrupted when we choose to check Slack or check our email. But yeah, you can be completely derailed by someone showing up at your cubicle when you are in the middle of defining something. It's horrible.

Peter Sokolowski: It's horrible. It was also sometimes very welcome, because sometimes it wakes you up. I do miss the office and the colleagues and the collegiality. We're lucky to work with people who care about what they do. I'm lucky to work with two national treasures, because I think of you as both being completely uniquely qualified to do what you do, and you both do it better than anyone could. That's just luck that we work together. But, also there's something else, which is that there's something about the work that leads to a good democratic comradery, which is to say that all of the research is based on evidence. It's not based on what you knew before or could show off, it's based on what you can demonstrate and show is true. I find that there's a real nice collegial warmth that comes from that kind of work. Descriptivism actually leads to good human behavior. I really believe that.

Emily Brewster: I think so too, and I think there's also the fact that there are no bylines.

Peter Sokolowski: You know what? That's very important. That was something Ammon and I discussed when he first came on, because we were starting to do more of these prose-y articles for the website to turn the website into something of a language lover's magazine, as well as a functional reference for words as a dictionary. We did have a meeting with the executives, because Ammon was producing a lot of material and I had already been doing that same kind of work, and we decided we don't sign the definitions, we're not going to sign the articles. The articles are the voice of Merriam-Webster and the editorial voice, and John Morse used to be so proud of this. The editorial voice is the voice of a friendly person who knows the answer. Not of a show off, not of a know-it-all. A friendly person whose job happens to be that they can go find this answer for you. I just think, well, that's a kind of a nice, friendly tone, and we try to keep that going.

Ammon Shea: I think that's the role of the dictionary. There are exceptions, of course. When we look at the 1828 that Noah Webster wrote, or we look at Samuel Johnson, 1755, there is a strong authorial voice there. But, once we get into the modern era, when you look at the OED, you don't typically think there are few exceptions in the OED. I feel like you can kind of tell when James Murray, the editor in chief, and he has a very irascible, sometimes irritated tone to his definitions or his usage notes. But, generally, you have no idea who wrote it because it was all done by committee. It was revised, it was reedited. It's a work in progress. It's gone through many iterations. I feel like it reflects the cumulative knowledge of the staff working on this project, and that's what our articles should do as well. None of the articles that I write are entirely mine. I'm working with the data that we've collected as a scholarly entity.

Peter Sokolowski: That teamwork is so important. I was not a longtime definer. That has never really been my role like it has been for Emily. However, I always had the confidence that there would be people above me. I would write this definition, it would be checked by a copy editor, who was basically just a better definer, and then maybe by a specialist like a science editor, and then maybe by the etymologist. Then finally what we call the final reader, who could be the Editor in Chief or the Director of Defining or a very senior editor. I knew that five or six very analytical, informed, careful sets of eyes would be on my work, and that gave me confidence to do what I do without being so afraid that I'd be paralyzed.

Emily Brewster: There's relief in being part of a team.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: This is a collaborative effort, and the aim is just to make good content, good definitions, good articles. Just to put good information out there, and we're all working on it together.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Ammon Shea: For all of you do enjoy the company of no people and love the company of thinking about words, you may end up sitting alone in a cubicle one day thinking long thoughts about words, happily.

Emily Brewster: Thank you for listening to us today, and thank you for being listeners to Word Matters.

Peter Sokolowski: A hundred episodes. Thank you, guys.

Emily Brewster: Thank you.

Ammon Shea: Thank you.

Emily Brewster: Word Matters is going to be taking a little summer holiday. We look forward to talking to you when we return. Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts, or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org, and for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and me. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster and New England Public Media.

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