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Book Review: Word by Word

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper

Disclosure: I received a free advance review copy of this book from the publisher, Pantheon Books. I also consider Kory Stamper a friend.

A lot of work goes into making a book, from the initial writing and development to editing, copyediting, design and layout, proofreading, and printing. Orders of magnitude more work go into making a dictionary, yet few of us give much thought to how dictionaries actually come into being. Most people probably don’t think about the fact that there are multiple dictionaries. We always refer to it as the dictionary, as if it were a monolithic entity.

In Word by Word, Merriam-Webster editor Kory Stamper shows us the inner workings of dictionary making, from gathering citations to defining to writing pronunciations to researching etymologies. In doing so, she also takes us through the history of lexicography and the history of the English language itself.

If you’ve read other popular books on lexicography, like The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch, you’re probably already familiar with some of the broad outlines of Word by Word—where dictionaries come from, how words get in them, and so on. But Stamper presents even familiar ideas in a fresh way and with wit and charm. If you’re familiar with her blog, Harmless Drudgery, you know she’s a gifted writer. (And if you’re not familiar with it, you should remedy that as soon as possible.)

In discussing the influence of French and Latin on English, for example, she writes, “Blending grammatical systems from two languages on different branches of the Indo-European language tree is a bit like mixing orange juice and milk: you can do it, but it’s going to be nasty.” And in describing the ability of lexicographers to focus on the same dry task day in and day out, she says that “project timelines in lexicography are traditionally so long that they could reasonably be measured in geologic epochs.”

Stamper also deftly teaches us about lexicography by taking us through her own experience of learning the craft, from the job interview in which she gushed about medieval Icelandic family sagas to the day-to-day grind of sifting through citations to the much more politically fraught side of dictionary writing, like changing the definitions for marriage or nude (one of the senses was defined as the color of white skin).

But the real joy of Stamper’s book isn’t the romp through the history of lexicography or the English language or even the self-deprecating jokes about lexicographers’ antisocial ways. It’s the way in which Stamper make stories about words into stories about us.

In one chapter, she looks into the mind of peevers by examining the impulse to fix English and explaining why so many of the rules we cherish are wrong:

The fact is that many of the things that are presented to us as rules are really just the of-the-moment preferences of people who have had the opportunity to get their opinions published and whose opinions end up being reinforced and repeated down the ages as Truth.

Real language is messy, and it doesn’t fit neatly into the categories of right and wrong that we’re taught. Learning this “is a betrayal”, she says, but it’s one that lexicographers have to get over if they’re going to write good dictionaries.

In the chapter “Irregardless”, she explores some of the social factors that shape our speech—race and ethnicity, geography, social class—to explain how she became one of the world’s foremost irregardless apologists when she started answering emails from correspondents who want the word removed from the dictionary. Though she initially shared her correspondents’ hatred of the word, an objective look at its use helped her appreciate it in all its nuanced, nonstandard glory. But—just like anyone else—she still has her own hangups and peeves, like when her teenage daughter started saying “I’m done my homework.”

In another chapter, she relates how she discovered that the word bitch had no stylistic label warning dictionary users that the word is vulgar of offensive, and she dives not only into the word’s history but also into modern efforts to reclaim the slur and the effects the word can have on those who hear it—anger, shame, embarrassment—even when it’s not directed at them.

And in my favorite chapter, she takes a look at the arcane art of etymology. “If logophiles want to be lexicographers when they grow up,” she writes, “then lexicographers want to be etymologists.” (I’ve always wanted to be an etymologist, but I don’t know nearly enough dead languages. Plus, there are basically zero job openings for etymologists.) Stamper relates the time when she brought some Finnish candy into the office, and Merriam-Webster’s etymologist asked her—in Finnish—if she spoke Finnish. She said—also in Finnish—that she spoke a little and asked if he did too. He replied—again, in Finnish—that he didn’t speak Finnish. This is the sort of logophilia that I can only dream of.

Stamper explodes some common etymological myths—no, posh and golf and the f word don’t originate from acronyms—before turning a critical eye on Noah Webster himself. The man may have been the founder of American lexicography, but his etymologies were crap. Webster was motivated by the belief that all languages descend from Hebrew, and so he tried to connect every word to a Hebrew root. But tracing a word’s history requires poring over old documents (often in one of those aforementioned dead languages) and painstakingly following it through the twists and turns of sound changes and semantic shifts.

Stamper ends the book with some thoughts on the present state and future of lexicography. The internet has enabled dictionaries to expand far beyond the limitations of print books—you no longer have to worry about things line breaks or page counts—but it also pushes lexicographers to work faster even as it completely upends the business side of things.

It’s not clear what the future holds for lexicography, but I’m glad that Kory Stamper has given us a peek behind the curtain. Word by Word is a heartfelt, funny, and ultimately human look at where words come from, how they’re defined, and what they say about us.

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries is available now at Amazon and other booksellers.

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Politeness and Pragmatics

On a forum I frequent, a few posters started talking about indirectness and how it can be annoying when a superior—whether a boss or a parent—asks you to do something in an indirect way. My response was popular enough that I thought I might repost it here. What follows is one of the original posts plus my edited and expanded response.

My kids used to get really pissed off when I asked them “Would you please unload the dishwasher”. They said it implied that they had a choice, when they really didn’t.

It’s time for some speech act theory.

The study of the meanings of words and utterances is called semantics, but the study of speech acts—how we intend those utterances to be received and how they’re received in context—is called pragmatics. And a look at pragmatics can reveal why parents say things like “Would you please unload the dishwasher?” when they really mean “Unload the dishwasher.”

Any speech act has three components: the locution (the meaning of the words themselves), the illocution (the intent of the speaker or writer), and the perlocution (the message that is received, or the effect of the speech act). Quite often, all three of these coincide. If I ask “What time is it?”, you can be pretty sure that my intent is find out the time, so the message you receive is “Jonathon wants me to tell him the time.” We call this a direct speech act.

But sometimes the locution, illocution, and perlocution don’t exactly correspond. If I ask “Do you know what time it is?”, I’m not literally asking if you have knowledge of the current time and nothing more, so the appropriate response is not just “Yes” or “No” but “It’s 11:13” or whatever the time is. I’m still asking you to tell me the time, but I didn’t say it directly. We call this an indirect speech act.

And speech can often be much more indirect than this. If we’re on a road trip and I ask my wife, “Are you hungry?”, what I really mean is that I’m hungry and want to stop for food, and I’m checking to see if she wants to stop too. Or maybe we’re sitting at home and I ask, “Is it just me, or is it hot in here?” And what I really mean is “I’m hot—do you mind if I turn the AC up?”

Indirect speech acts are often used to be polite or to save face. In the case of asking a child or subordinate to do something when they really don’t have a choice, it’s a way of downplaying the power imbalance in the relationship. By pretending to give someone a choice, we acknowledge that we’re imposing our will on them, which can make them feel better about having to do it. So while it’s easy to get annoyed at someone for implying that you have a choice when you really don’t, this reaction deliberately misses the point of indirectness, which is to lubricate social interaction.

Of course, different speech communities and even different individuals within a community can have varying notions of how indirect one should be, which can actually cause additional friction. Some cultures rely much more on indirectness, and so it causes problems when people are too direct. On the flip side, others may be frustrated with what they perceive as passive-aggressiveness, while the offender is probably just trying to be polite or save face.

In other words, indirectness is generally a feature, not a bug, though it only works if both sides are playing the same game. Instead of getting annoyed at the mismatch between the locution and the illocution, ask yourself what the speaker is probably trying to accomplish. Indirectness isn’t a means of obscuring the message—it’s an important part of the message itself.

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Cognates, False and Otherwise

A few months ago, I was editing some online German courses, and I came across one of my biggest peeves in discussions of language: false cognates that aren’t.

If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you’ve probably learned about false cognates at some point. According to most language teachers and even many language textbooks, false cognates are words that look like they should mean the same thing as their supposed English counterparts but don’t. But cognates don’t necessarily look the same or mean the same thing, and words that look the same and mean the same thing aren’t necessarily cognates.

In linguistics, cognate is a technical term meaning that words are etymologically related—that is, they have a common origin. The English one, two, three, German eins, zwei, drei, French un, deux, trois, and Welsh un, dau, tri are all cognate—they and words for one, two, three in many other language all trace back to the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *oino, *dwo, *trei.

These sets are all pretty obvious, but not all cognates are. For example, the English four, five, German vier, fünf, French quatre, cinq, and Welsh pedwar, pump. The English and German are still obviously related, but the others less so. Fünf and pump are actually pretty close, but it seems a pretty long way from four and vier to pedwar, and an even longer way from them to quatre and cinq.

And yet these words all go back to the PIE *kwetwer and *penkwe. Though the modern-day forms aren’t as obviously related, linguists can nevertheless establish their relationships by tracing the them back through a series of sound changes to their conjectured historical forms.

And not all cognates share meaning. The English yoke, for instance, is related to the Latin jugular, the Greek zeugma, and the Hindi yoga, along with join, joust, conjugate, and many others. These words all trace back to the PIE *yeug ‘join’, and that sense can still be seen in some of its modern descendants, but if you’re learning Hindi, you can’t rely on the word yoke to tell you what yoga means.

Which brings us back to the German course that I was editing. Cognates are often presented as a way to learn vocabulary quickly, because the form and meaning are often similar enough to the form and meaning of the English word to make them easy to remember. But cognates often vary wildly in form (like four, quatre, and pedwar) and in meaning (like yoke, jugular, zeugma, and yoga). And many of the words presented as cognates are in fact not cognates but merely borrowings. Strictly speaking, cognates are words that have a common origin—that is, they were inherited from an ancestral language, just as the cognates above all descend from Proto-Indo-European. Cognates are like cousins—they may belong to different families, but they all trace back to a common ancestor.

But if cognates are like cousins, then borrowings are like clones, where a copy of word is taken directly from one language to another. Most of the cognates that I learned in French class years ago are actually borrowings. The English and French forms may look a little different now, but the resemblance is unmistakable. Many of the cognates in the German course I was editing were also borrowings, and in many cases they were words that were borrowed into both German and English from French:

bank
drama
form
gold
hand
jaguar
kredit
land
name
park
problem
sand
tempo
wind
zoo

Of these, only gold, hand, land, sand, and wind are actually cognates. Maybe it’s nitpicking to point out that the English jaguar and the German Jaguar aren’t cognates but borrowings from Portuguese. For a language learner, the important thing is that these words are similar in both languages, making them easy to learn.

But it’s the list of supposed false cognates that really irks me:

bad/bath
billion/trillion
karton/cardboard box
chef/boss
gift/venom
handy/cellphone
mode/fashion
peperoni/chili pepper
pickel/zit
rock/skirt
wand/wall
beamer/video projector
argument/proof, reasons

The German word is on the left and the English word on the right. Once again, many of these words are borrowings, mostly from French and Latin. All of these borrowings are clearly related, though their senses may have developed in different directions. For example, chef generally means “boss” in French, but it acquired its specialized sense in English from the longer phrase chef de cuisine, “head of the kitchen”. The earlier borrowing chief still maintains the sense of “head” or “boss”.

(It’s interesting that billion and trillion are on the list, since this isn’t necessarily an English/German difference—it also used to be an American/British difference, but the UK has adopted the same system as the US. Some languages use billion to mean a thousand million, while other languages use it to mean a million million. There’s a whole Wikipedia article on it.)

But some of these words really are cognate with English words—they just don’t necessarily look like it. Bad, for example, is cognate with the English bath. You just need to know that the English sounds spelled as <th>—like the /θ/ in thin or the /ð/ in then—generally became /d/ in German.

And, surprisingly, the German Gift, “poison”, is indeed cognate with the English gift. Gift is derived from the word give, and it means “something given”. The German word is essentially just a highly narrowed sense of the word: poison is something you give someone. (Well, hopefully not something you give someone.)

On a related note, that most notorious of alleged false cognates, the Spanish embarazado, really is related to the English embarrassed. They both trace back to an earlier word meaning “to put someone in an awkward or difficult situation”.

Rather than call these words false cognates, it would be more accurate to call them
false friends. This term is broad enough to encompass both words that are unrelated and words that are borrowings or cognates but that have different senses.

This isn’t to say that cognates aren’t useful in learning a language, of course, but sometimes it takes a little effort to see the connections. For example, when I learned German, one of my professors gave us a handout of some common English–German sound correlations, like the th ~ d connection above. For example, if you know that the English /p/ often corresponds to a German /f/ and that the English sound spelled <ea> often corresponds to the German /au/, then the relation between leap and laufen “to run” becomes clearer.

Or if you know that the English sound spelled <ch> often corresponds with the German /k/ or that the English /p/ often corresponds with the German /f/, then the relation between cheap and kaufen “to buy” becomes a little clearer. (Incidentally, this means that the English surname Chapman is cognate with the German Kaufmann.) And knowing that the English <y> sometimes corresponds to the German /g/ might help you see the relationship between the verb yearn and the German adverb gern “gladly, willingly”.

You don’t have to teach a course in historical linguistics in order to teach a foreign language like German, but you’re doing a disservice if you teach that obviously related pairs like Bad and bath aren’t actually related. Rather than teach students that language is random and treacherous, you can teach them to find the patterns that are already there. A little bit of linguistic background can go a long way.

Plus, you know, real etymology is a lot more fun.

Edited to add: In response to this post, Christopher Bergmann (www.isoglosse.de) created this great diagram of helpful cognates, unhelpful or less-helpful cognates, false cognates, and so on:

Click to see the full-sized image.

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For Whomever the Bell Tolls

A couple of weeks ago, Ben Yagoda wrote a post on Lingua Franca in which he confessed to being a whomever scold. He took a few newspapers to task for messing up and using whomever where whoever was actually called for, and then he was taken to task himself by Jan Freeman. He said that “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit that investigation” should have the subject form, whoever, while she said that the object form, whomever was indeed correct. So what’s so tricky about whoever that even experts disagree about how to use it?

To answer that, we need to back up and explain why who trips so many people up. Who is an interrogative and relative pronoun, which means that it’s used to ask questions and to form relative clauses. One feature of both questions and relative clauses is that they cause movement—that is, the pronoun moves from where it would normally be in a declarative sentence to a position at the beginning of the clause. For example, a sentence like You gave it to him becomes Who did you give it to? when made into a question, with the personal pronoun him being changed to who and moved to the front. Or a pair of sentences like I gave it to the woman. I met her at the conference becomes I gave it to the woman who I met at the conference. Again, the personal pronoun her is replaced with who and moved up.

Technically, both of these examples should use whom, because in both cases it’s replacing an object pronoun, and whom is the object form of who. But we often have trouble keeping track of the syntactic role of who(m) when it moves, so many people just who regardless of whether it’s syntactically a subject or object. Sometimes people overcorrect and use whom where it’s syntactically a subject, as in Whom may I say is calling?

Whoever adds another layer of complexity. It’s what we call a fused relative pronoun—it functions as both the relative pronoun and its own antecedent. Let’s go back to our example above: I gave it to the woman who I met at the conference. The antecedent of who is the woman. But we can replace both with whoever: I gave it to whoever I met at the conference.

Because a fused relative functions as its own antecedent, it fills roles in two different clauses—the main clause and the relative clause. And whereas a simple relative like who is always just a subject or an object in the relative clause, whoever can be both a subject and an object simultaneously thanks to its dual roles. There are four possible combinations:

  1. Subject of main clause, subject of relative clause: Whoever ate the last cookie is in trouble.
  2. Object in main clause, subject of relative clause: I’ll give the last cookie to whoever wants it.
  3. Subject of main clause, object in relative clause: Whoever you gave the last cookie to is lucky.
  4. Object in main clause, object in relative clause: I’ll give the last cookie to whoever I like the most.

So if whoever can fill two different roles in two different clauses, how do we decide whether to use the subject or object form? Which role wins out?

The traditional rule is that the role in the relative clause wins. If it’s the subject of the relative clause, use whoever. If it’s the object of the relative clause, use whomever. This means that the prescribed forms in the sentences above would be (1) whoever, (2) whoever, (3) whomever, and (4) whomever

The rationale for this rule is that the relative clause as a whole functions as the subject or as an object within the main clause. That is, the relative clause is treated as a separate syntactic unit, and that unit is then slotted into the main clause. Thus it doesn’t matter if whoever follows a verb or a preposition—the only thing that matters is its role in the relative clause.

I think this is easier to understand with sentence diagrams. Note that in the diagram below, whoever occupies a place in two different structures—it’s simultaneously the complement of the preposition to and the subject of the relative clause. Syntax diagrams normally branch, but in in this case they converge because whoever fuses those two roles together.

Grammatical case is governed by the word on which the pronoun is dependent, so we can think of case assignment as coming down from the verb or preposition to the pronoun. In the diagram above, the case assignment for whoever (represented by the arrows) comes from its role in the relative clause. Normally the preposition to would assign case to its complement, but in this situation it’s blocked, because case has already been assigned at the level of the relative clause.

Of course, case in English has been a mess ever since the Norman Conquest. English went from being a highly inflected language that marked case on all nouns, pronouns, and adjectives to a minimally inflected language that marks case only on a small handful of pronouns. Our internal rules governing pronoun case seem to have broken down to some extent, leading to a number of constructions where subject and object forms are in alternation, such as between you and I or me and her went to the store. The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of whomever being used for whoever going all the way back to John Wyclif in 1380 and examples of whoever being used for whomever going back to Shakespeare in 1599.

Which brings us back to Yagoda’s original post. The sentence that brought correction from Jan Freeman was “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit that investigation.” Yagoda said it should be whoever; Freeman said it was correct as is. Yagoda eventually conceded that he was wrong and that the Times sentence was right, but not before a side trip into let him who. Freeman linked to this post by James Harbeck, in which he explains that constructions like let him who is without sin don’t work quite the same way as let whoever is without sin.

A lot of people have learned that the clause with whoever essentially functions as the object of let, but many people then overextend that rule and say that the entire construction he who is without sin is the object of let. To understand why it’s not, let’s use another syntax diagram.

Note the differences between this diagram and the previous one. Him is the object of the verb let, and who is . . . is a relative clause that modifies him. But, crucially, him is not part of that clause; it’s merely the antecedent to the relative pronoun. Its case assignment comes from the verb let, while the case assignment of who comes from its role in the relative clause.

For he to be the correct form here, its case would have to be controlled by the verb in a relative clause that it’s not even a part of. Case assignment essentially flows downhill from the structure above the pronoun; it doesn’t flow uphill to a structure above it.

But apparently Harbeck’s post wasn’t enough to convince Yagoda. While admitting that he didn’t understand Harbeck’s argument, he nevertheless said he disagreed with it and declared that he was on team “Let he who is without sin . . .”

Some of the commenters on Yagoda’s post, though, had an elegant test to show that Yagoda was wrong without resorting to syntax trees or discussions of case assignment: simply remove the relative clause. In Let him cast the first stone, it’s clear that him is an object. The relative clause may add extra information about who exactly is casting the first stone, but it’s grammatically optional and thus shouldn’t affect the case of its antecedent.

In conclusion, case in English is a bit of a mess and a syntactic analysis can help, but sometimes the simplest solutions are best.

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Changes at the Arrant Pedantry Store, Plus 20% Off

If you’ve been to the Arrant Pedantry Store recently (and if you haven’t, then why not?), then you may have noticed a change that looks small but is actually pretty big: the ability to edit products. Now, instead of only being able to select from the products I’ve already created, you can make your own. Want to put Battlestar Grammatica on a hoodie, or Editing Is Awesome on a mug, or Grammar Is for Lovers on a thong?

It’s pretty easy. All you have to do is click on an existing product, then click “Do you want to edit the design?” at the bottom of the product picture. You’ll be taken to a screen where you can select the product, select and position the design, and choose the quantity and size. You can even change the color of the design itself, so you could get Stet Wars in red on a blue shirt or I Could Care Fewer in hot pink on a gray shirt or Eschew Obfuscation in black on a black shirt (though I don’t recommend the last one, unless you want to be extra funny).

When you’re done, you’ll go through the regular checkout process, and Spreadshirt will print your product and mail it out just like normal.

And if you order between February 3rd and 5th, you can use the coupon code GET20 to get 20 percent off when you order two or more products. And while you’re there, check out some of the new designs:

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