Lexicographers in Germany have been pounding away at a Thesaurus Linguae Latinae since the 1890s, with deaths and replacements along the way. They are not merely defining or finding common meanings, mind you. They are writing a biography of every Latin word and noting every possible known way in which it has been used.
They will be at it a while yet.
Their Herculean labor has stolen my self-pity; I can no longer feel sorry for myself when I slog through a seemingly endless project. But the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae has also made me wonder about the curators of American English. How do they track a word’s shapeshifting, or its death? (We have forever lost “gay” in the sense of carefree, and when was the last time you heard a young woman described as “demure”? “Demoralize” used to mean corrupting the morals; “gentle” meant noble; “fuzzled” meant drunk.)
How do dictionary editors decide when a new word is eligible for entry? Or whether to italicize frites? Who brought “parse” and “fraught” and “gravitas” and “prescient” and “granular” and “truthiness” to the cool kids’ party? What nuances can English still not express? (I keep a list: Attaccabottonai, Italian for a doleful bore who buttonholes people and tells sad, pointless tales. Duende, Spanish for the erotic, juicy energy that makes things shimmer. Farpotshket, Yiddish for something that is all fouled up, especially as the result of an attempt to fix it. Razbliuto, Russian for the feeling a person retains for someone he or she once loved … )
Curious, I call Emily Brewster, senior editor and lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, who turns out to be the coolest sort of word-nerd. She podcasts, gives witty talks about slang and political language, and co-owns a pub in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. The Dictionary is not the gatekeeper of language, she is quick to point out; it is “more of a biologist monitoring elements within a complex linguistic ecosystem.” All those times I red-penciled a word in a magazine article and wrote M-W beneath the correction? M-W was taking its cue from the judgment calls made by editors of books and magazines.
Another marble edifice gone squishy.
Realizing how interactive the process is makes me wonder what will happen, now that editing is deemed an optional expense, even a luxury. Books are stuffed with typos, and online copy often never passes beneath an editor’s bifocals.
“I think a lot about that,” Brewster says. “What is published, edited text when there is less editing? Over the past hundred years, there’s been this marked shift to informality, and in the past twenty years, you have really seen the devaluing of the editorial process.” I have one hand at my throat, ready to rend my garments, but she seems quite perky about the shift: “It’s interesting for what it does to the language,” she says. “Changes occur more quickly because no editor’s red pen is holding them back.”
Merriam-Webster made headlines a few months ago by accepting the nonbinary “they,” used in the singular as a way to avoid a gendered pronoun. “That was one we had been watching for a long time,” Brewster says, explaining that in addition to their vast citation database, they keep a gigantic spreadsheet to make note of new uses. “We need a significant amount of evidence in a variety of sources, to be sure it’s not driven by an agenda.”
The nonbinary “they” is something I have to practice, I admit, because it just feels wrong to me—although, admittedly, nowhere near as wrong as an unchosen “he” or “she” would feel.
“The singular ‘they’ has been around since Chaucer, 600 years,” Brewster points out, “and for the first 400, it was fine.” Then came the two centuries of grammatical fascism that left me in my current state—followed by five years of cultural shift and turnaround acceptance. She offers another example: We say, in speaking to one person, “You are,” because “you” used to be plural. That, she guesses correctly, does not bother me.
“We used to have ‘me’ and ‘thou,’” she explains, “and then ‘you’ started to be used for polite usage, probably because of the impact of the French language.” English uses titles to be polite—sir, ma’am, milord—but French switches pronouns altogether, as does German. “Friends in Germany go out to celebrate the fact that their friendship has gotten to the level where they are now using the familiar pronoun,” notes Brewster. Recently she did an interview with German public radio, because “Germans are starting to use English’s nonbinary they as their nonbinary pronoun.” They needed to borrow a neutral word, because their plural ‘they’ is the same as their feminine pronoun, sie.
We talk about pop culture’s role in language formation: “Gift” as a verb had been around for years, but it only took off after a Seinfeld episode used “gift” and “regift” relentlessly. “‘Gift’ does its job really well,” Brewster adds. “If I ‘give’ you a book, that’s not as clear, because I might want the book back.”
“Unpack” is a verb Rachel Maddow has put to such political purpose that a reporter from the Washington Post is researching the phenomenon. “People who have a platform, that’s what brings a word to prominence,” Brewster says. “To have a platform, you used to need a pulpit or a newspaper, some position of authority. Nowadays, anybody can have one. ‘Sleek,’ meaning perfectly done, was used in a video that a Chicago teenager put up on Vine, and it just took off. It ended up in advertising copy for Taco Bell.”
I ask about a personal favorite, “extra” meaning excessive, drenched in drama. “I know!” she exclaims. “We have written about that!” She searches as we talk, muttering, “It’s Google’s world and the rest of us just live in it.” Not yet admitted to the dictionary, “extra” lives in Merriam-Webster’s Words at Play, words they are watching.
A new word that delights Brewster is “nibling,” used for any child of a sibling, whether niece or nephew. In addition to being nonbinary, it is adorable and easy to say: “Excited to see my niblings” is far less clunky than “Excited to see my nieces and nephews.” She would love an English word for adult offspring, and as she says that, I realize for the first time how awkward that phrase is. “Grown children” is worse; it requires you to make someone a child again, simply to say they have grown up.
I bring up a pet theory (because how often do I get to talk to a lexicologist?): “I’ve noticed what might be a generational trend. When people my age [okay, oldish] order at a restaurant, they say, ‘I’ll have the…’ or ‘I’d like the…’ The next generation down, they say, ‘I’ll do the…’ Is that because food has come to seem like an active pursuit, a hobby and not a passive routine?” I am proud of my little theory; I have been testing and refining it for months now. Like a stalking lion, I freeze in mid-sentence and wait, listening hard, while friends of various ages order their food.
Brewster is polite. “That’s the kind of thing I would have to think about when revising an entry for the word ‘do,’” she says. “Which is a monster of an entry. The fancier the word, the simpler it is to define. The words that do most of the heavy lifting are the most complex. You almost have to clear your calendar if you are going to work on ‘do.’ What you’re noticing could be generational. It could also be regional, or jargon.” Tactfully, she warns me of “the recency fallacy, when you become aware of something and you see it everywhere and think it is new. That’s one I deal with a lot as I monitor words.”
She thinks a lot about “changes the language has been resisting for hundreds of years, like ‘lie’ and ‘lay.’ What a beastly pair of words, especially when you start conjugating them. ‘I laid the book down.’ ‘I have lain it down.’ ‘I lay down.’” (One even gets laid, I add silently.) “You have really well educated, intelligent people who do not use this pair the ‘right’ way,” she continues. “My prediction, though I haven’t made it out loud yet, is that ‘lay,’ used intransitively, is going to become more and more prominent.”
The word I hate is “share,” because it is a calculated act via social media and not a generous impulse. “Sharing” is so often contrived. A shy kid, I dreaded being asked, “Would you like to share that with the class?” when I was caught whispering.
Oh, and “hydrate.” Seriously?
Brewster does not nurse as many grudges. Her life’s work has made her less judgmental: “I will realize that this thing I thought was business-speak isn’t; this thing I thought was uneducated, people have been saying for a hundred years. Lexicography requires you to take a longer view of the language’s development, so things don’t bother me as much.”
“Except?” I press, because no one is that serene.
“I’m not a big fan of new blend words,” she admits. “We didn’t start combining words that way until the early twentieth century. ‘Brunch.’ ‘Smog.’ Blends can be efficient. And they’re fun to come up with—I have an eight-year-old who makes them up. But eatertainment?”
I am willing to bet that Latin had no equivalent.