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Career Day: The Lexicographer

By Schuyler Velasco

Emily Brewster defines new vocabulary, edits existing definitions, and writes online content for Merriam-Webster’s print and online dictionaries.

Were you interested in linguistics as a kid?
I come from a words-loving family. “Lay and lie” were hot topics in my house. My dadHe’d say to me and my sisters, “Girls, have you ever seen a prapapatis?” And we’d say, “What’s a prapapatis?” And he’d say, “Well, it’s a little like a thistledode.” And we’d say, “What’s a thistledode?” And he’d say, “It’s something like a snafferthule.” And we’d say…well, you can guess what we said. He’d also make up really long words that we would try to say back to him. I remember one that we worked especially hard to master: osithis-dass-dithis-doo. also loves to make up words, so I grew up viewing language as a thing for playing with and a thing to be serious about.

How did you become a lexicographer?
I majored in English, then dropped out of college for a while. I worked for a company that designed a program to help people with dyslexia learn to read. I really enjoyed helping people make sense of words they had a hard time making sense of, so I went back to school and got a degree in philosophy and linguistics. My senior thesis was on the Scottish influence on the Pittsburgh dialect.

People look up ‘love’ more than almost any other word, especially around Valentine’s Day.

How did you get the job at Merriam-Webster?
I called every three months for a year until they had an opening.

What’s a typical workday like?
I might spend half the day working on definitions. Right now, I’m drafting a definition for TL;DR [Internet slang for too long; didn’t read]. One of the time-consuming parts on that one is the styling. Is it uppercase? Is there a semicolon or is it smooshed together? Then I might write an article about the difference between “deprived” and “depraved.” It’s pretty solitary work.

How have the internet and social media affected your job?
Before, you would write a definition and not know if anyone would ever read it. Now we know what people look up, and this is enormously helpful. People look up “love” more than almost any other word, especially around Valentine’s Day. That changes how we do our work; we revisit those terms more. I once spent a year revising entries for the 12 most commonly looked-up words.

What’s a surprising tool you use?
Twitter. People are largely unfiltered so you can see what is being used informally, how words are being confused. One I’ve seen a lot recently is people writing “colon” when they mean “cologne.” “I love my boyfriend’s colon,” that’s a common one.

What’s the most exciting thing that’s happened to you at work?
I found a new usage for the article “a”“Used as a function word before a proper noun to distinguish the condition of the referent from a usual, former, or hypothetical condition.” For example, “triumphant Ms. Jones greeted her supporters.” It first appeared in the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in 2003. that wasn’t in Merriam-Webster or any competing dictionary. I was thrilled. Around the same time, I got to define “badass”—“of formidable strength and skill.” More recently, I got to define “booty call.”

What’s your favorite part of speech?
Prepositions. I love the technical jobs they do; we rely on them so much but we don’t think about them very often. They can also be a challenge to define, which is fun.

What are you working on now?
In recent years I’ve been focused on new words, internet and slang-y terms.

I’m interested to know if “on fleek” is going to stick around.

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Schuyler Velasco is senior writer for Experience.

Illustration by Verónica Grech

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