Interview with Emily Brewster

jubilat recently sat down with Emily Brewster, Associate Editor at Merriam-Webster. Brewster is a lexicographer who has worked on the definitions for such common (and complicated) words as "a" and "love." During our discussion, attention turned to the concept of private versus public—specifically, words and their transitions between the private and public. The following conversation explores the nature and substance of this exchange.

To begin, I'd like to get a sense for the lexicographer's role in shaping our language. Has the role evolved—and, if so, does this speak to the way we (as a society) view or interact with the words we use?

The lexicographer doesn't intend to shape the language; that's really the antithesis of our aim, which is to catalog the established words of the language.

But I suppose some degree of shaping is inevitable, as it's really a kind of dance that's done between the users of the language and the dictionary makers following behind them, making note of that twirl of a usage, this spin of a new word. (And I'm told that some dictionary users—especially writers—take cues from words they happen to brush against in nearby entries.)

We define the words that a significant portion of users have accepted, and the users look to us to see what words we've assessed as established.

If this role has changed over time I think it's only in that in recent years people seem to have come to recognize that the dictionary doesn't spring ex nihilo into existence. It's the work of a group of (human, fallible) people. And what was once a relationship with a great chasm of unknowing at its core—we didn't know what definitions people read or why, and people generally knew nothing about lexicography—is now a much more intimate one.

At Merriam-Webster, you're on the lookout for new words which may need to make their way into the dictionary. Tell us about this process—how you identify a new word, what you may or may not know about its origin(s), what happens to a word as you watch it, and how you know it's time to give that word a place in the dictionary.

I can't help but notice new words and new uses of existing words. Once you do this kind of work for any amount of time the pitch of the new is one you can't unhear.

My nonworking life is frequently interrupted by a quick email to myself about a word I've just encountered in a conversation, heard on the radio, noticed in a tv show.

My working life is a more planned pursuit: I scan sources for new words and uses, and get Google alerts for phrases like "new word" and "is defined as."

I make note of new words in a giant shared spreadsheet that all the Merriam-Webster editors use, and I spend some time collecting evidence of the word in the wild and adding it to our files.

I usually get a sense of the word's origin in that process, but formally determining etymology is not my role as a definer. A number of editors, myself included, assess which candidates in that shared spreadsheet meet our (intentionally vague) criteria for entry: significant use over an extended period of time in a variety of sources.

Other editors use the same criteria when assessing evidence for words in a particular alphabetical range (e.g. radish to rampant, dastard to dear), or relating to a particular subject (e.g. gender and sexuality, astronomy).

The flexibility of the criteria is essential, because some words spread so far so fast that they demonstrate likely staying power almost immediately (the Twitter sense of 'tweet,' for example), while others are appropriate for entry despite being found only in limited sources because they're known and used by all the people in some professional field.

How do new words generally surface within a language? Do words in English tend to surface in the same way they do in other languages?

Words are memes, in the original sense of that word. Grumpy Cat may be where the word has gone, but a meme as conceived by the word's coiner Richard Dawkins is an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.

Like other memes, words are viral: someone makes one up and uses it, and another person reads or hears it and uses it too.

Many of these memes never surface in the language at large: it was revelatory to me when I went to college and discovered that no one else referred to an elastic hair band as a 'thingy-do'—that was the technical term for the object in my house. But the great majority of the words we all use are memes that have spread over time from person to person.

It happens in conversation, of course, and it happens between writer and reader, between performer and audience. Before the internet, we had gatekeepers, mostly in the form of editors. They kept some lexical memes from surfacing quickly, but not so much anymore. It's not at all clear what makes a particular meme so contagious, but a teenager in Chicago can share a Vine video about her eyebrows being on fleek and within four months 'fleek' is in advertising copy by the likes of Taco Bell.

If a word can be considered to have 'surfaced' in a language when it's familiar to and used by some critical mass of the language's speakers, then the internet has made it possible for a word to surface almost immediately after it's coined.

Earlier, we had talked about how words change over time—even those words with long histories and (seemingly) well-established usage. It is perhaps understandable that new words might shift and slip around until they settle comfortably into their skin, but what about these older words? What accounts for the evolution of "established" words?

What usually happens with established words is that they gain new meanings while still retaining the original or older ones. It all comes down to pragmatics. Extending the meaning of an existing word is far more efficient than creating a whole new word.

A poker player's tell—a behavior or mannerism that betrays something about them to the benefit of other players—'tells' something. Calling that behavior or mannerism a 'tell' is a very elegant solution to the question of how to refer to such a thing. Someone encountering the use for the first time is likely to understand it immediately. That elegance is also at work when the new meaning is semantically very different from the original but is connected by analogy.

The computer mouse (which of course originally always had a cord/tail) is reminiscent of the creature mouse; the 'ghosting' that takes place when someone abruptly cuts off all communication with someone else is evocative (and catchy) because the original meaning of the term 'ghost' is so specific and evocative.

Do you feel that the evolution a word experiences through time reflects this private-public exchange which we've been talking about?

The individual's language is their own: it's a hand, it's a gesture, it's an impulse like sinking and rising to a beat; on the most basic level we don't think it at all, it's us. And when a new usage makes sense, when it glances off some secret cluster of neurons in the brain in just the right way, we say "oh, right" and adopt it as one of our own because now it is.

There's an intimacy inherent in the adoption of a word or use, but also a faith in the viability of that linguistic item. We need it to function, to do what we want it to do, otherwise it's of no use.

How does "power" fit into the discussion, here? When it comes to definition(s) and usage, we start to wonder about authority and influence—who is responsible for the way we relate to a given word? How much control does the coiner, the everyday user, the lexicographer, actually have?

We all learn the great bulk of our vocabulary from encountering words out in the world, not from some meta-text like a dictionary. We're remarkably adept at determining meaning based on context. This means that to my mind, the power is all in the user's hands—though those users do not all have the same power.

A prominent cultural figure or work can introduce a population to a term and have a far greater effect on that word's usage than a dictionary ever could.

I suspect that most of the time people use a dictionary to confirm that a word does indeed mean what they think it means. They already know and use it.

As for the coiner, they cede control immediately (unless the term is a trademark, in which case it's not so immediate). The guy who invented the gif says it's pronounced like the peanut butter, but he can't stop the millions of people from pronouncing it like 'gift' without the 't.'

English is marked by the constant absorption, invention, and transformation of words. Is there a time in its history where things were less active—and, is it likely that English will reach a period of stagnation in the future? How does this activity compare to that of other languages?

I'm not a scholar of historical linguistics, but it's clear that lexicons expand when language groups come into contact with one another. The Norman Invasion in 1066 ushered in a period of great expansion for English as a French dialect was actively inserted into the lives of English speakers, with a lot of prestige attached to it.

American English was initially shaped by Native American languages and then by the languages of various immigrant groups. English is especially able to absorb foreign vocabulary, not in small part due to its relative lack of inflections, and it seems to me that the only thing that would be likely to significantly stifle the expansion of the English lexicon would be some kind of isolation of the kind dreamed up in dystopian fiction.

Words facilitate communication, but they also seem to be the building blocks of thought itself. Do you agree? It is difficult to imagine engaging in the sort of complex thinking we do as humans without this material—the word. When working on a definition, how do you relate to the idea that your result may influence the way a person (today or far into the future) defines or perceives their reality?

Oh heavens. I can't even consider that. I'd never write another definition.