greeblie / Flickr

CHICAGO—Open up a dictionary and chose a word. Who wrote that definition?

If you're using a Merriam-Webster dictionary, there's a chance that the word you selected has been defined in part by Kory Stamper. She's been working for the dictionary company since 1998 as an associate editor and lexicographer—someone who defines words.

Kory Stamper
Danyel Duncan

“People assume that the dictionary sets your language,” Stamper said in a speech at Chicago Ideas Week on Thursday. In fact, dictionaries are themselves based on a cross-section of language, filled with the words people are already using. People using words set the dictionary, not the other way around.

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This process is directed by lexicographers like Stamper, people whose job is to collect and define new words. “We read books, magazines, trade journals, websites, twitter feeds, public Facebook posts, blogs,” Stamper said. “We read diaper boxes, we read beer bottles, we read condiment packets, we read the ads on the subway. If there’s print on it, we read it.”

They’re searching for new words missing from their dictionary, which can come from all different kinds of writing and speech. “Language is a big river,” Stamper said. “It looks like one cohesive ribbon of water, but it’s actually made up of thousands of molecules.”

When someone creates a successful new word, it spreads gradually from person to person “and then your word ends up in a New York Times article.” Once a lexicographer finds it, they note down the surrounding context and enter that citation into a database. Most dictionary-makers have billions of citations, and the context from those citations is used to create definitions.

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“That means the people who actually determine what a word means are the people who use it, not the people who collect and record it,” Stamper said.

A word moves from the database to the actual dictionary when dictionary-makers find it has widespread use, sustained use, and meaningful use. For example, take the word "subtweet," a tweet that refers to someone without explicitly tagging them. When it was first used in a meaningful message—by a Twitter user in 2009—it didn’t have widespread or sustained use.

But since then—and especially in the past three years—Stamper and her colleagues have watched as the word spread to new mediums and locations. Lexicographers found it used in news outlets and trade publications from the Journal of Food Management to the Sheboygan Press of Sheboygan, Wis. to The Times of South Africa.

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“That is an indication that that word meets the criteria—sorry, criterion—of widespread use,” Stamper said. And the fact that it has been around since 2009 suggests it’s likely to have sustained use. Right now, “subtweet” is in a queue of popular new words, and it’s likely to make its way into a dictionary in the near future, Stamper said.

Stamper, 40, has worked on tens or even hundreds of thousands of words like these in the 17 years she’s been at Merriam-Webster. Her favorite word is gardyloo—"used in Edinburgh as a warning cry when it was customary to throw slops from the windows into the streets"—and her favorite word that she entered in the dictionary is mosh—a verb that means "to engage in uninhibited often frenzied activities (as intentional collision) with others near the stage at a rock concert."

“I remember working on that definition really hard and feeling really good about it,” Stamper told me. “It’s a hard thing to describe—it’s not just people running into one another.”

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The lexicography business has changed a lot because of the internet. When print dictionaries were the focus, lexicographers had to worry about keeping their definitions short—if books were too long and too expensive, no one would buy them. Now the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary is online-only, so definitions can be as long as they need to be.

Online dictionaries also let lexicographers tell which words people are looking up. “We thought people came and looked up really hard words,” Stamper said. “But the most common searches tend to be for words that are easily confused, like affect or effect, or words with very broad and very confusing uses, like disposition or pragmatic.”

Social media, and especially Twitter's searchable archive tweets, has been helpful for finding the first user of new words. Many new words today start being "used on Twitter as a joke, someone thinks it’s great, it gets retweeted thousands of times, and that ripple effect happens,” Stamper said.

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Lexicography isn’t “this great arms race,” with different dictionary companies trying to beat their competitors to the newest words. “The industry has collapsed down quite a bit over the last 20 years, so…the working lexicographers in the United States all know each other,” Stamper said. "We go out for beers."

So it's not a growth industry. But there are some perks, such as an upper hand in Scrabble. Stamper, who says she's not very good at the game, remembers once playing "puggle," for ten points. Her opponent objected that that wasn't a word.

“I felt very smug. I said, ‘It is a word, because I wrote a definition for it,’” Stamper said.

Merriam-Webster

Univision, one of Fusion’s parent companies, is one of the sponsors of Chicago Ideas Week.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story used the word "lexicologist"—someone who studies words—instead of "lexicographer"—someone who writes dictionaries and definitions—in one sentence. Clearly, we should have more closely consulted our dictionary.

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.