Daniel Rubin: The editor who dropped an F-bomb on Merriam-Webster

Lexicographer Kory Stamper at work at her home in Collingswood.
Lexicographer Kory Stamper at work at her home in Collingswood. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff)
Posted: August 24, 2012

Although she's philosophical about the matter, Kory Stamper says it's technically wrong to call her the F-bomb lady.

The title fails to appreciate the collaborative nature of her work. No fewer than a dozen lexicographers vet the origins, significance, and currency of a word before its inclusion in the latest Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.

But Stamper was the associate editor picked to tell the world how the colloquialism F-bomb made the cut. The Collingswood word maven found herself quoted from here to the Philippines about the flipping phrase.

"So be it," she says. "It's a very colorful and evocative word. It's also a little bit playful in referring to something very serious - someone slipping up and using the F-word where they should not. It has major impact. Usually, major destructive impact."

In the introverted world of lexicography - Samuel Johnson called it the vocation of "harmless drudges" - Stamper is the bold-faced exception: amiable, quotable, a brand, even.

She's the only associate editor at the 114-year-old publishing company to have her own Facebook fan club. (Membership: 420 people.)

Stamper blew up two summers ago when her Ask the Editor video about octopodes went viral. (Yes, that's the proper way to refer to more than one of the cephalopod creatures, though it's really a Britishism. Octopuses is also correct. Octopi, Stamper says, was a well-meaning revision by 17th-century grammarians, who gave a Latin plural to a word that happens to be Greek.)

Marriage proposals from strangers followed her Internet moment, irregardless of the fact that she's a mother of two and married to Joshua Stamper, a musician whose production work led the family to move to South Jersey five years ago. Most days, Stamper works from a shared office near home. Her tools include a computer with access to the company database, a library of specialty and general-interest dictionaries, and an AeroPresse for strong coffee.

The Colorado native did not grow up expecting to be a word hunter. She wanted to be a doctor. At Smith College, she fell deeply for a course in the Icelanders' family sagas of the 13th and 14th centuries. "I loved the style, the rhythm. They're very bleak, but they have this black humor." That led to an interdisciplinary major that involved studying Latin, Greek, Old English, Norse, and Middle English.

"I had all these dead languages under my belt, but these dead languages happened to be the building blocks of modern English."

In 1998, she answered an ad for an editorial assistant in Springfield, Mass., that turned out to be with the dictionary publisher.

"I'd been working in a college development office - a loud, chaotic experience with phone calls all the time, and where we'd holler to each other. The editorial floor at Merriam-Webster was absolutely silent."

Editors had no phones at their desks because that would only interrupt the work. Colleagues communicated by pink 3-by-5 cards - even when they were gathering consensus for where to eat lunch.

Stamper turned out to love the job, from her first Style and Defining course, where a veteran editor stressed the importance of mastering the rules, requirements, and idioms of the language, then chucking them all if called for.

A dictionary, she explained, is a record of language as it is actually used. "The longer you do this, the more you realize that a lot of the usage rules we live by are not really rules. They're suggestions, the favorite rule of a long-dead grammarian that has no basis in usage."

Which brings us back to irregardless. Not a word, right? An ill-conceived conflation of regardless and irrespective? Wrong.

"It is a word," she says, a word with widespread edited use, currency over a sustained period, and, yes, sufficient lexical value. "In the case of irregardless, you have to be willing to look at the accumulated usage. Frankly, I'd rather stab my eyes out than use it."


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @danielrubin.

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