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Interview with Peter Sokolowski, lexicographer at Merriam-Webster

An Interview with Peter Sokolowski


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Programs Manager Grant Rosenberg interviews Peter Sokolowski, lexicographer at Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Peter will be speaking at the Library on the topic of “Dictionary as Data: What the Online Dictionary Tells Us About the English Language” on Wednesday 20 September at 19h30. 

What was your first experience in a library that you remember?

My hometown library was a very important place. I can still smell the basement reading room. It’s a stone Harry Potteresque structure, now the historical society

What books have you been reading lately?

Reading now: “Outre Terres” by J-P Kauffman. Next will be “Colonel Chabert,” which I somehow missed in grad school, because both books are about the same battle. In a weird way the connections come from “The Judgment of Paris,” also about paintings and Napoleonic battles. Just finished it. Just read a Modiano and hope to start Ivo Andric’s Drina novel soon.

Your pinned tweet is a great point, about people expecting language to evolve but not in their time. What brought you to note this, and what words/changes have you seen finding the biggest pushback?

Dictionaries occupy a paradoxical cultural space, since they record and announce and celebrate new words, but also, to most of us, represent stability of things like spelling and meaning. 

And yet any page of Shakespeare shows us that in 400 years English has changed an enormous amount. Language change is constant but uneven; every novelty moves at its own pace. Relatively new verbal use of ‘access’ and ‘impact’, for example started at about the same time, but today while many people object to ‘impact’ as a verb, no one has a problem with ‘access’. The difference is frequency. David Crystal, the famous linguist, says “familiarity breeds content” in his new book (I just reviewed it in the NYTimes). 20 years ago, my use of ‘access’ as a verb was edited out of an academic article with a single comment: “computer jargon.” Today we all use it daily. 

The most controversial word newly entered in our huge Unabridged edition of 1961 (Webster’s Third) was ‘finalize’. We we pilloried for entering the word by all kinds of critics–twice in the same week from the NYTimes! Today, it’s hard to even imagine that it caused any notice at all. 

As lexicographers, we watch for these changes and add them to the dictionary when they become common. This descriptive mission sometimes makes us the target of unhappy language lovers who are really just blaming the messenger in this case, since by the time a usage is added to our dictionaries, we have accumulated lots of evidence.

One classic case is the figurative use of ‘literally’, which we hear about all the time. 

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