Ideas

Ideas | Mark Peters

In Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveler, word detectives get their due

MOVIES: Christopher Lloyd, left, as Dr. Emmett Brown and Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in the 1985 film "Back to the Future." PHOTO CREDIT: Universal Pictures 02demand

Universal Pictures

Christopher Lloyd as Dr. Emmett Brown and Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in “Back to the Future.”

If our novels and movies are any guide, we crave the ability to go back in time — think H.G. Wells, or Michael J. Fox in a DeLorean. But for now, we’ll have to make do with an addictive new feature of Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. Time Traveler gives word nerds and procrastinators a portal to 2016, 1985, 1871, 1502, and all the years in between, allowing them to track when now-common words first appeared in print. Time Traveler doesn’t just provide an amusing, user-friendly way to peer into the past; it also highlights the painstaking detective work that historical lexicographers do.

My own birth year, 1972, saw the first appearances of “women’s studies,” “user-friendly,” and “floppy disk,” a term for a device I fondly remember using. Some words appear but don’t catch on widely; 1972 brought us “wafflestomper,” which I had to look up. It’s a type of boot I don’t believe I’ve ever worn.

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Merriam-Webster has been doing detailed historical work on words since 1983. “I think of dates as adding an important third dimension to a dictionary entry,” Peter Sokolowski, an editor-at-large at the company, said by e-mail. “There’s the lexical fact (the spelling, pronunciation, and meanings of a word), the cultural fact (the usage of a word — is it archaic, offensive, regional, etc.), and now the historical fact: when did it enter the language?” Those three dimensions paint a fuller picture of the life of a word.

As expert researchers at Merriam-Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and elsewhere make new findings, the lexical record shifts — just as the actual fossil record grows when paleontologists pull new specimens out of the earth. At Springfield-based Merriam-Webster, each editor spends hours a day going through not just the expected newspapers and books but any text available to find a word, spelling, or use that seems novel or notable. In the past, each example was turned into a citation on a 3-inch-by-5-inch slip of paper containing the word, the quotation, and bibliographic info. This process is now digital, and all previous citations (over 16 million) are also digitized. Those citations are the evidence used to build dictionary entries, so definitions reflect actual use and not what an editor imagines the word should mean.

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One of the most unusual recent findings was “staycation,” a word with a contemporary feel that, as of 2016, was believed to date from 2005. But Merriam-Webster’s Kory Stamper — author of “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries” — found an example from 1944 in a beer ad that appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer: “Better tuck a few more bottles of Felsenbrau into the icebox, today. . . Take a Stay-cation instead of a Va-cation, this year. Trains and busses [sic] are crowded.” Such finds also alter the word’s location in Time Traveler, creating a more accurate picture of the past.

Still, tying words to specific years can convey a false sense of precision. Anne Curzan, an English professor at the University of Michigan and regular contributor to the Lingua Franca blog, called Time Traveler “a fascinating cultural snapshot” but also directed readers to Merriam-Webster’s cautionary notes, which explain that most words were used in speech for some time before they appeared in print. In other words, the earliest citation of a word may not be the same as the moment it was first coined.

For a venerable dictionary publisher in the age of Google, it’s vital to find new ways to be relevant. Jonathan Green, a compiler of many detailed historical timelines of slang terms, said lexicographers are “ever-more aware of the possibilities” for exploiting their “magnificent aggregations of words and phrases.” Merriam-Webster has attracted half a million fans to its sassy Twitter feed, which, for instance, pokes fun at President Trump’s conflation of “heel” and “heal” by posting the definition of both words. Time Traveler represents another attempt to bring a vast store of historical research to new audiences.

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And until a mad scientist produces a real-life time machine, Merriam-Webster’s lexical DeLorean will have to be enough.

Mark Peters is the Ideas language writer.
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