Kory Stamper’s new book describes her world of words, definitions, and more.

By Blake Bakkila
Updated April 06, 2017
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Dictionary With Letters
Credit: Dominik Pabis/Getty Images

Kory Stamper talks about defining words like “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis” and the surprisingly more complex “take” in her new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. After nearly two decades at Merriam-Webster, the editor breaks down her role as lexicographer and the troubling, fun, and wacky times she spends at her cubicle. In an interview with Real Simple, Stamper shares surprising tidbits about words and the secret to helping your kids fall in love with language.

Real Simple: What is a common word (or words) that people misuse, and why?

Kory Stamper: We can always go with the gold standard: affect and effect. People often confuse the two because the problem with “affect” and “effect” is there’s a noun for each and a verb for each. So, it’s not just two words to confuse—it’s four words to confuse. “Affect” as a noun always refers to a specific psychological condition, like, “He has a slight affect.” And the verb “affect” means to have an influence over, so if lack of sunlight affects your mood, that’s with an “a.” The noun “effect” is used for things like “special effects,” or the effect that something has on another thing. The verb “effect” only means to bring about.

RS: Any fun words people should add to their vocabulary?

KS: I really love “schadenfreude,” which is a word we’ve stolen from German that refers to the joy you feel at somebody else’s pain. So, if you’re gloating over Gonzaga’s loss to UNC, that’s schadenfreude.

RS: What’s your take on emojis?

KS: Emojis are really a fascinating critter for lexicographers because we are looking mostly for things that have what we call “lexical meaning.” That means if you use them in a sentence, they have a specific meaning. If I Venmo my daughter gas money and she responds with the praying hands, the car, and heart emoji, I know she’s saying “Thank you for the gas money, I love you.” But if she texts me and types out, “Thanks for the gas money, I love you” and uses a heart at the end, that heart is not lexical.

The other thing is that their meanings change so quickly. We look for things to be pretty stable in their meanings before we can enter them [in the dictionary]. But I think emojis are great. They convey very subtle meanings when they’re used lexically.

RS: As a lexicographer and mom of two, how did you motivate your kids to love reading and learning new words?

KS: I would play rhyming games with them. When my daughter was 3 or 4, she used to love saying, “sliding ding ding.” I think a lot of parents would say, “It’s just sliding. You don’t need to say sliding ding ding.” But we would add to her word dabbling and rhyme: sliding thing dings, sliding ding rings, sliding thing things, sliding thing sings. Make language a playground and not a place where you feel like you have to teach. Most of us think language is very static, but it’s experimental and there’s always something new to learn.

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RS: In your book, you talk about controversial words like “irregardless” and “moist.” What are some others and where does this inexplicable hatred come from?

KS: Another one I don’t like is “impactful.” I think most people don’t like it because it’s originally business jargon and as English speakers, we are immediately suspect of any kind of jargon from any field that’s trying to sell us something. If you don’t understand or you don’t naturally use that jargon, it feels very alien and you feel very alienated. So “impactful” is a great example of words people don’t even notice or vehemently hate. There’s no in-between for impactful. There are lots of words that people just don’t like the sound of. I just hate the sound of “bleisure,” a blend of “business” and “leisure.” It sounds like a medical condition.

RS: Do you have a favorite definition?

KS: “Gardyloo” is one of those words that I keep coming back to. It’s an interjection and the definition is, “Used in Edinburgh as a warning cry when it was customary to throw slops through the windows and into the streets.” First, that there’s a word that describes this is crazy. But second, that definition is so specific and also so ridiculous. It’s very specific—throwing your chamber pot contents out into the street—and the word is so frilly and fanciful. “Gardyloo!” I love it because it adequately describes what the word is, but it does so in a way that you’re immediately like, “Wait, what?”