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‘A cracker cannot be defined as a biscuit, nor as a wafer’

Merriam-Webster editor Kory Stamper shares an inside look at the publication, and what it means to edit the oldest dictionary of American English

By Jennifer Schuessler  /  NY Times News Service

Merriam-Webster, the oldest dictionary publisher in the US, has turned itself into a social media powerhouse over the past few years. Its editors star in online videos on hot-button topics like the serial comma, gender pronouns and the dreaded “irregardless.” Its Twitter feed has become a viral sensation, offering witty — and sometimes pointedly political — commentary on the news of the day.

Kory Stamper, a lexicographer here, is very much part of the vanguard of word-nerd celebrities. Her witty “Ask the Editor” video contributions, like a classic on the plural of octopus, and personal blog, Harmless Drudgery, have inspired a Kory Stamper Fan Club on Facebook. One online admirer has carefully tracked minute changes in her hair — which, for one thing, is purple.

Yet the company remains very much a bricks-and-mortar operation, still based in this small New England city where the Merriam brothers bought the rights to Noah Webster’s dictionary in the 1840s and carried on his idea of a distinctly American language.

And this month, Stamper, the author of the new book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, was more than happy to offer a tour of some of the distinctly analog oddities in the basement.

She walked me through a hallway that seemed to double as a museum of superannuated filing cabinet technology. She offered a glimpse of the dungeon-like storage room used as a podcast studio and cheerfully pointed out some of the creepier company heirlooms, like mangy historical dioramas donated by local schoolchildren and an inflatable dictionary with arms and legs, created for a long-ago promotional campaign.

However, the real jaw-dropper was the Backward Index, which includes about 315,000 cards listing words spelled ... backward.

“It was conceived of as another way of shuffling information,” Stamper said of the index, which seems to have been produced intermittently from the 1930s to the 1970s. “Basically, someone sat here and typed up all the entries backwards. And then went crazy.”

Craziness is a bit of a leitmotif in Word by Word. The book, published earlier this month by Pantheon, mixes memoiristic meditations on the lexicographic life along with a detailed description of the brain-twisting work of writing dictionaries. The Atlantic called it “an erudite and loving and occasionally profane history of the English language” that is also “a cheerful and thoughtful rebuke of the cult of the grammar scolds.”

Stamper calls it “a love letter to dictionaries in English,” if one that allows for some mixed feelings.

“People have so many fears about what their use of language says about them. When you talk to people about dictionaries, they often start talking about other things, like which words they love, and which words they hate. And it’s perfectly fine to hate parts of the language,” she said.

Stamper, 42, grew up in Colorado and majored in medieval studies at Smith College. When she interviewed at Merriam-Webster in 1998, she was puzzled to learn the job involved writing definitions.

“I just thought, ‘Why would you need to do that?’” she recalled. “Hasn’t the dictionary already been written?”

Word by Word describes her own initiation into the art of lexicography, which involves wrestling with the continuous evolution of language. She walks the reader, chapter by chapter, through different aspects of a definition, including grammar, pronunciation, etymology and more.

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