Tag Archives: language

How Do Words Get Added to the Dictionary?

New words, phrases, and definitions are added to the Oxford English Dictionary four times a year, and this month’s revision includes over 1,200 changes and updates, from a new “sense” of the word thing to the “well-established, but newly-prominent usage of woke,” as Head of U.S. Dictionaries Katherine Connor Martin writes on the OED’s blog.

Martin, one of the people who decides which new words and “senses” get added to the OED, agreed to answer a few questions for us about how that process works, and whether dictionary rivalries exist. (We’re looking at you, Merriam-Webster.)

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The Elements of Bureaucratic Style

Colin Dickey | Longreads | April 2017 | 12 minutes | 3000 words

On Monday night, Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines, sent an internal email to his staff regarding the incident on Flight 3411 in which members of Chicago Aviation Security forcibly removed a customer who refused to give up his seat when asked. In the note, Munoz offered an explanation of events and a defense of both his employees and law enforcement. The email ended up on Twitter where its contents were roundly excoriated.

Munoz’s email is, in its own way, a work of art; a triumph of the willingness to pass the buck. It misstates objective facts and shifts responsibility onto the passenger, David Dao, who ended up bloody and dazed after the encounter.

As you will read, the situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers was politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Officers to help.

What struck me as I read the email is how a careful and consistent use of syntax, grammar, and diction is marshaled to make a series of points both subtle and unsubtle. On Twitter, I referred to it as a “master class in the use of the passive voice to avoid responsibility,” and followed with a few tweets that highlighted its use of language to shift the blame on to the victim.

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Falling in Love with Words: The Secret Life of a Lexicographer

Kory Stamper | Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries | Pantheon Books | March 2017 | 24 minutes (6,691 words)


We’re proud to feature “Hrafnkell,” the first chapter of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper. Thanks to Stamper and Pantheon for sharing it with the Longreads community.

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On Falling in Love


We are in an uncomfortably small conference room. It is a cool June day, and though I am sitting stock-still on a corporate chair in heavy air-conditioning, I am sweating heavily through my dress. This is what I do in job interviews.

A month earlier, I had applied for a position at Merriam-Webster, America’s oldest dictionary company. The posting was for an editorial assistant, a bottom-of-the-barrel position, but I lit up like a penny arcade when I saw that the primary duty would be to write and edit English dictionaries. I cobbled together a résumé; I was invited to interview. I found the best interview outfit I could and applied extra antiperspirant (to no avail).

Steve Perrault, the man who sat opposite me, was (and still is) the director of defining at Merriam-Webster and the person I hoped would be my boss. He was very tall and very quiet, a sloucher like me, and seemed almost as shyly awkward as I was, even while he gave me a tour of the modest, nearly silent editorial floor. Apparently, neither of us enjoyed job interviews. I, however, was the only one perspiring lavishly.

“So tell me,” he ventured, “why you are interested in lexicography.”

I took a deep breath and clamped my jaw shut so I did not start blabbing. This was a complicated answer. Read more…

Our Favorite Words Of 2016

Black Cardigan is a great newsletter by writer-editor Carrie Frye, who shares dispatches from her reading life. We’re thrilled to share some of them on Longreads. Go here to sign up for her latest updates.

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In an earlier letter, I put out a call for favorite words you learned in 2016. I hoped they’d make a nice handful of marbles for us to have in our pockets for this new year, which only this week taught me the word ‘kompromat.’ :-(. Read more…

How to Talk about the Weather Like a Newfoundlander

Winters are long and cold in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada’s easternmost province, but the language that describes the many local varieties of rain, wind, and ice is anything but dreary. In Hakai Magazine, Emily Urquhart digs deep into the rich lexicon Newfoundlanders — from First Nations people to Basque and Irish immigrants — have assembled over the centuries to talk about the world around them.

Stories, like songs, are told with cadence and tone, timing, and, most importantly, attention to language. Perhaps there simply weren’t enough words to describe the erratic weather and rock-lashed land, the complex history of the people who settled there, and the boundless sea that surrounded them. Maybe the regional lexicon was not simply the result of limitation—the isolation of the outports—but a response to the limitlessness of the natural and social landscape.

The vocabulary is fluid. It’s an ongoing dialogue, and it’s as captivating and elusive as the Newfoundland fairies. Preservation efforts are constantly underway, from the b’ys (read: dudes) on George Street outdoing one another with local slang to the academics who collect and study this kind of talk like specimens in a jar. But it’s the artists who’ve cornered the market on heritage language in the province.

Marlene Creates, for example, captures the language of the natural world in her poetry and visual art, which are equal parts aesthetic and political. And what wordsmith could resist terms like glim, a light seen across a distant ice field, or swatch, a rivulet of open water in ice? There is an onomatopoeic quality to these words that lends itself to lyrical language: sketch, for the thin layer of ice that rests on the water; sish, both the word that describes a boat running through slushy water and the resulting sound. You can hear the crackle in brickle ice, which is easily shattered. Way ice is more straightforward, in that a vessel can navigate its broken pans.

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The Rise of ‘Mama’

Elissa Strauss | Longreads | May 2015 | 15 minutes (4,006 words)


I first noticed “mama” while pregnant with my son in 2012. I was browsing on the internet—familiarizing myself the different types of mothers out there, trying to figure out what kind of mother I might become—when I noticed a number of alternative moms who referred to themselves as “mama.” This was the radical homemaking, attachment parenting, extended breastfeeding bunch, and “mama” was right at home with their folksy, back-to-the-earth approach to motherhood.

This use of mama can be traced back to women like Ariel Gore, who began publishing her alternative parenting magazine “Hip Mama” in 1993. Inspired by her experience as an urban single mom, the magazine became the source of parenting advice for riot grrrl types, tattooed and pierced women who wanted to find a way to embrace parenthood while simultaneously rejecting much of the bourgeois accouterment that comes along with it.

This fringe quality of “mama” stuck, leading to websites like the “Wellness Mama,” the home of a popular alternative lifestyle guru named Katie who is into stuff like, “cloth diapering, natural birthing, GAPS dieting, homeschooling, not eating grains, making my own toothpaste, drinking the fat and more.” For her, being a mama isn’t just about parenting one’s kids, but seeing parenting as a medium through which one can change the world.

“Here’s the thing, I can’t change the health of the world alone, but I’m absolutely convinced that as a group, women and moms can. … Not only are we raising the next generation, feeding them, teaching them, etc but we control the majority of food dollars spent around the world.”

She continues by explaining that being a “Wellness Mama” is a way for women to counter any criticism they might receive for being a stay-at-home mom. “I hope to make being #justamom just a little easier for you.” Mama isn’t just a pet name, it’s a manifesto. Read more…

The Linguistic Morphology of Reaction GIFs


When we turn to the person sitting next to us and say something, it’s not particularly difficult to convey our emotional intent. We have an entire arsenal of non-verbal tools at our disposal when we communicate in person: we can gesticulate, frown, shrug, shake our heads, even face-palm. But what about the instances when we are limited to words on a screen? According to linguist Chi Luu, “email, instant messaging and other online forums for speech have made the efficient communication of emotion and social cues necessary,” and this is where the internet famous face-palm comes into play. In a recent column for JSTOR Daily, Luu explored the rise of so-called “reaction GIFs,” and their place in our internet vernacular:

The evolution from simple punctuation-based emoticons to more complex reaction gifs from internet memes shows how more nuanced expressions are being stylized and conveyed in online culture. Emoticons in parallel have themselves developed some complexity, influenced by their Japanese counterparts. These are known as kaomojis, which use combinations that include katakana characters, such as the  shrug ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  and the ever popular table flip (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ . Emoticons that are frequently used have been developed into image versions of their punctuation selves (also known as emoji) and are so popular with internet users an emoji-only messenger is now available for those who like their communication short and sweet.

From visual emojis depicting simple emotional states, it’s a short step to the more dynamic emotion or reaction gifs, used by certain internet subcultures to respond or react in playful ways to an online discussion. These are gif images, often originating from internet memes, that depict elements of body language that can be too complex for an emoticon to describe. Essentially, it’s an innovative way for speakers to convey a sense of gesture on the internet.

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Where Does the Term “Spin Doctor” Come From?

The term “spin doctor” is ubiquitous in contemporary politics—but what exactly does it mean? And when did it enter the common vernacular?

The Oxford English Dictionary added the term in their 1993 draft addition, and defines it as such: “a political press agent or publicist employed to promote a favourable interpretation of events to journalists.” But that’s just when it entered the dictionary—surely people were using it before then. For it’s full etymology, we must turn to the late William Safire’s “On Language” column for the New York Times Magazine, specifically his August 31, 1986 column entitled “Calling Dr. Spin.” An excerpt is below:

Spin doctor is a locution we must keep our eyes on for 1988. It is based on the slang meaning of the verb to spin, which in the 1950’s meant ”to deceive,” perhaps influenced by ”to spin a yarn.” More recently, as a noun, spin has come to mean ”twist,” or ”interpretation”; when a pitcher puts a spin on a baseball, he causes it to curve, and when we put our own spin on a story, we angle it to suit our predilections or interests.

The phrase spin doctor was coined on the analogy of play doctor, one who fixes up a limping second act, and gains from the larcenous connotation of the verb doctor, to fix a product the way a crooked bookkeeper ”cooks” books.

Its earliest citation in the Nexis computer files is from an editorial in The New York Times on Oct. 21, 1984, about the Reagan-Mondale televised debates. ”Tonight at about 9:30,” wrote the editorialist, ”seconds after the Reagan-Mondale debate ends, a bazaar will suddenly materialize in the press room. . . . A dozen men in good suits and women in silk dresses will circulate smoothly among the reporters, spouting confident opinions. They won’t be just press agents trying to impart a favorable spin to a routine release. They’ll be the Spin Doctors, senior advisers to the candidates. . . .”

…Four days later, Elisabeth Bumiller of The Washington Post picked up the phrase, defining spin doctors – no longer capitalized – as ”the advisers who talk to reporters and try to put their own spin, or analysis, on the story.” The term was thus sealed into the new political vocabulary, and will be trotted out by pundits in the coming campaign to prove that their opinions cannot be influenced.

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The Fantastic, Utopic Dream of Emojis

Some people use emojis sparingly, some with abandon; some are practical while others are creative; even emoji meanings are highly personal—smiley poop comforts my friend, grosses out my mom, makes my sister think of changing diapers. Emojis today are in a similar fluid state as the English language in the 16th century: Anything goes and everything is up for debate. Back then you could spell anything any which way—Smith, Smythe, Smyth. Even Shakespeare varied the spelling of his own name. Punctuation was also a mess; rules for standard use didn’t get locked down until the invention of the printing press.

Just as we eventually agreed on the rules of English, so might we eventually agree on a single, global understanding of emojis. In an interview for The Verge, original emoji designer Shigetaka Kurita admits this is a dream of his: “It would be great if we could compare, and have that lead to people starting to use things in the same way.” Though nearly everyone in the world has access to emojis we all have a slightly different understanding of the characters and phrases. It’s a fantastic, utopic dream, and not a new one: Liebniz algebra, Esperanto, and Blissymbolics are just a few of many failed global language experiments over the centuries. Emojis are an accidental member of this fraternity, and there’s no telling now whether it’s here to stay or has reached its peak.

Mary Mann writing in Matter about the “poetry and honesty” of emojis.


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More stories about language

The History of Literacy, and the Future of 'Code Literacy'

In the latest Mother Jones, Tasneem Raja argues that “code literacy” is becoming just as critical as reading and writing in education. To understand how we as a society might begin to take it seriously, it also helps to understand the history of literacy itself:

Reading and writing have become what researchers have called “interiorized” or “infrastructural,” a technology baked so deeply into everyday human life that we’re never surprised to encounter it. It’s the main medium through which we connect, via not only books and papers, but text messages and the voting booth, medical forms and shopping sites. If a child makes it to adulthood without being able to read or write, we call that a societal failure.

Yet for thousands of years writing was the preserve of the professional scribes employed by the elite. So what moved it to the masses? In Europe at least, writes literacy researcher Vee, the tipping point was the Domesday Book, an 11th-century survey of landowners that’s been called the oldest public record in England.

Commissioned by William the Conqueror to take stock of what his new subjects held in terms of acreage, tenants, and livestock so as to better tax them, royal scribes fanned across the countryside taking detailed notes during in-person interviews. It was like a hands-on demo on the efficiencies of writing, and it proved contagious. Despite skepticism—writing was hard, and maybe involved black magic—other institutions started putting it to use. Landowners and vendors required patrons and clients to sign deeds and receipts, with an “X” if nothing else. Written records became admissible in court. Especially once Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, writing seeped into more and more aspects of life, no longer a rarefied skill restricted to a cloistered class of aloof scribes but a function of everyday society.

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Photo: worldbank, flickr