I Love Sprachgefühl*—How About You?

I don’t root for any particular football team, and I have no opinion about National versus American League. But I’m a big fan of geekery, especially when the geeks are writers, editors, and word people. And now I’m a cheerleader for a hitherto little-known player on Team Language.

Kory Stamper is a lexicographer who works for Merriam-Webster. She’s known for her witty Twitter presence, her appearances on M-W’s video series “Ask the Editor,” and, most recently, her book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.

It’s not every writer who can pen a combination memoir and insider’s guide to dictionary publishing, but Stamper nails both with self-effacing aplomb.

After a college stint filled with classes like “Medieval Icelandic Family Sagas,” she was a shoo-in for a job with America’s oldest dictionary maker, where she’s blissfully free to read (and define words) for eight hours a day.

If that sounds like working in an ivory tower, think again. In the course of doing her job, Stamper has had to wade into unexpected culture wars: Does the definition of “marriage” include same-sex marriage? Is it okay to use “their” for a singular subject instead of “his or her”? How do you feel about the dictionary’s listing “hella,” “sex kitten,” and “jackassery”?

Stamper patiently explains that the dictionary’s role is to describe how people are already using language. It’s not an arbiter that tells us what’s kosher and what’s not. Similarly, grammar rules uphold an ideal of our messy mother tongue; in reality, there was never a time when people spoke “good” English.

Still, she’s fighting an uphill battle. People persist in sending M-W angry correspondence based on what they think the dictionary ought to be, not what it actually is. I came away from Word by Word with respect for both lexicographers’ skills and their ability to deflect abuse with facts and humor.

And Stamper is in her element when it comes to the latter. “English,” she writes, “is like a child: We dress it in fancy clothes and tell it to behave, and it comes home with its underwear on its head and wearing someone else’s socks.”

* “Sprachgefühl” refers to an intuitive sense of what’s linguistically appropriate, according to M-W. If you’d like to learn more about this delightfully appropriate word (including how to pronounce it!), check out this two-minute-long podcast.