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An Interview with Emily Brewster: Transcript

This is a rough transcript of an interview between Mignon Fogarty and Emily Brewster in December 2020. You can listen to the interview on the main page.

Mignon: Grammar Girl here, I'm in Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and cool stuff, and today I have a very special guest for the end of the year: I have Emily Brewster, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster and co-host of the new podcast Word Matters. Hi, Emily. Thank you for being here today.

Emily: Hi, Mignon. Thanks for having me.

Mignon: You bet. Well, it's sort of award season for words. Recently, Ben Zimmer referred to words of the year as the Oscars for words. And so I'm just excited to have you here to talk about how these words get chosen. So can you talk about Merriam-Webster in particular, how the dictionary chooses? Well, it's really the editors of the dictionary choose the word of the year. And I'd love to hear, sort of, what it's like, you know, usually in the office. I'm sure you weren't in the office this year, but, sort of, the environment under which the word gets chosen.

Emily: Yes, our process is, I think, a little different than some others. We, I don't actually think of our word of the year as being chosen so much as being identified, because it's, really, it's based on data. So Merriam-Webster's word of the year is a word that was looked up a great deal of times, great many number of times on our website, and then a word that was also looked up in far greater numbers than in previous years. So if it were only ever, you know, the word that was looked up the most often, it would probably bounce back and forth between "affect" and "effect," right?

Mignon: Yes.

Emily: Those are words that people are always looking up. But when we are identifying the word of the year, we look at words that have been looked up a great deal, and then we filter out the words that are always looked up a lot. And we compare the words that we looked up a lot to their previous years lookups and our word of the year. Can I spill it?

Mignon: Yes, absolutely.

Emily: OK, our word of the year was this year is for 2020 is "pandemic." And sometimes in this process, we have two or three words that were looked up a great deal and were looked up in far greater numbers than they had been in the previous year. And sometimes we have to think about, well, this word was looked up, you know, it had five different spikes, and look up, looks up, look ups, over the course of the year. The plural is not "looks up." But other times in the case of "pandemic," it was just absolutely crystal clear that this word was really uniquely appropriate as 2020 as word of the year for dictionary users, because people came to the dictionary to look up "pandemic" from, you know, starting back in starting in January, then more in March, and then it just exploded and really stayed high for the entire year.

Mignon: Yeah, yeah. I guess it's not a surprise. It affects everything. In fact, when the pandemic first came out, sometime back around then, I did a show about "pandemic" versus "epidemic" and it's been unusually well compared to all my other shows too.

Mignon: So, yeah, people are really interested in those words.

Emily: They are. And I think people are. That's a great topic for a show because I think especially in the early part of the year, people were trying to distinguish between "epidemic" and "pandemic." When is this now? Has it gone from being epidemic to pandemic? And certainly when the World Health Organization announced that it was officially a pandemic, we saw the impact of that on our website and our traffic.

Mignon: It's fascinating that you can see the data. I love that Merriam-Webster shares what words are trending, I think, every day on Twitter. Right?

Emily: Most days. I mean, some days there really isn't, you know, on a on a happy, quiet, peaceful day, there isn't necessarily much, although it's you know, sometimes there, it's not always a terrible thing that drives people to look up words in the dictionary. But yes, most days there is some word that is trending for some reason or another. And we do tweet about it and we post about it on our website.

Mignon: Also, were there any fun words that you remember from this year?

Emily: Oh, you know, the word "Kraken" made it to our list, and it made it to our list because there was a new hockey team in Seattle that shows the word "Kraken" as their name. And, you know, it's an interesting word because it is a Norse mythological sea creature. It doesn't have a lot of use in the in popular discourse, except if you're a Marvel fan. There are some, there are some examples for sure in in popular culture. But a lot of people, I think, did not know what the word was or they wanted to know just more information about the word "Kraken" when that was announced.

Mignon: Right, exactly. The first thing that comes to mind is "release the Kraken," right?

Emily: Yes. Yes. And then the word, actually the word spiked again later in the year, just I think after we had already, after we had or when we were still in the process of assessing our data, it had to be a spike again. When Sidney Powell used you said that that that a Kraken was to be released, or I guess it's always "the Kraken," isn't it?

Mignon: The way that I know it said. I'm no expert. So what's the ... can you give us a sense of what the environment is like in the office? Is it special in any way when you're choosing the word of the year, just everyone wait in anticipation, or is it just sort of a regular part of the job?

Emily: Well, it's something that we lexicographers are kind of famously quiet and so we discuss it in Slack.

Emily: So we will see words, words spiking. And, you know, there's a little alert that goes off. This word is spiked. And so in our selection, it'll be like, oh, I mean, "this will be the word of the year" or, you know, so "I hope this isn't the word of the year" or so.

Emily: There's it's always a topic of interest. But again, it's all, it's always surprising to me. And I've been part of the process now for, I don't know, a bunch of years, maybe close to 10. And it's always so interesting to me that how when when you actually look at the data for an entire year or for most of the year, because we can't make it all the way to the end of the year, that the data is, it's not always, it doesn't always match up with these interesting spikes that you've seen.

Mignon: Oh, interesting.

Mignon: So, Emily, I know you are with Merriam-Webster, one of my favorite dictionaries, but everyone seems to choose a word of the year. I used to choose one, and it just seemed like everyone else was too. And I don't know, I just couldn't muster the competitive spirit to come up with my own. And I just love talking about everyone else's.

Mignon: So can you talk about some of the other words of the year? I know this year, I believe dictionary dot com also chose "pandemic," which really surprised me because usually, you know, it seems as if each dictionary tries to come up with its own special word. But maybe a "pandemic" was just so obvious that it was it was the word everyone had to choose this year. But what surprised me also was the Oxford English Dictionary didn't choose a word this year. They said "too many words. We can't do it." So can you maybe talk about some of these other words of the year and how they get chosen or what the feelings are about them?

Emily: It was, both of those were interesting facts to my mind. Dictionary dot com chose the same word that we did: "pandemic," and they announced it on the same day we did, which is also very interesting. And I, you know, I think they were they were looking at the same kind of data we were also looking at, I don't know the details of anybody else's process for choosing or identifying a word of the year, but I assume that they are also looking at their web traffic or and their, you know, maybe looking at usage beyond their own website. So it's such a particular annus horribilis. Right? This is this horrible, horrible year that we've all experienced and still are experiencing. I felt like the Oxford choice was also very interesting to not settle on anything but to say we have this body of words that that that are all so significant. I mean, it was a year of such big feeling and so much communication. I frequently think about how we are so much more connected than we ever have been, of course. But I also think about how much written language we all encounter and the nature of that written language, because it is astoundingly different from what we could have encountered, even like 15 years ago. You know, we used to only have access to written language as mostly as sanctioned by a platform of one kind or another. We had, you know, you could read what was published, you could read what was, you know, transcribed from from an interview or something you could read was transcribed from from a pulpit, from a sermon. You know, the platforms were so limited. And now on the internet, we can read in formal language, we can read it. We can read the first impulse of thought of anybody who cares to share it so easily. So just so it's the lexicographers job, and really I think anybody is anybody, any word person's job is so much more complicated than it used to be.

Mignon: Yes. And it's so much easier to search to, you know, you can go back and find the very first tweet that seemed to use the word "doomscrolling" and see sort of where it started before it became so much more popular. And all those digital databases and searchable databases are helpful to me in doing research on words, and I'm sure that you use them, too, although, you know, professional people have had access to more databases than the average person for much longer.

Emily: Yes, but I mean, there's the it's both a blessing and a curse, right, because there's so much, it's just the evidence, the evidence of written language is just completely overwhelming. More blessing than curse, I will say more blessing than curse. But it is impossible to ever get to the to feel like you know it all, you know.

Mignon: Yeah. And so you and I, we both participated for the first time in the vote for the American Dialect Society word of the year. And that's an entirely different process. It's not based on data at all. It's, you know, a bunch of people get together and decide what they think the zeitgeisty words are of the year and then make arguments for and against them and then vote on what should be the word of the year in their different categories.

Mignon: There's the digital word of the year and then there's special ones. This year there was the Zoom-related word of the year, and it's just a boisterous, fun experience. Do you have any feelings about how it was to participate in that compared to, you know, the data driven process that you use with the dictionary?

Emily: Oh, I loved hearing all the arguments that people were making for words one way or another. You know, the arguments were based on, there is sometimes based on the significance of the American Dialect Society's choosing of these words. So, you know, how is this going to feel to the public? Which was a really interesting thing to me. Others would introduce ideas of, you know, how really how widely used is this? Where does this word known by everybody who uses Twitter but nobody else? And that's also a really interesting perspective. Those of us who are online. And of course, Merriam-Webster's word of the year is based on lookups of an online dictionary.

Emily: It's very easy to to look at language through the prism of only online language, like, are we extremely online? And I appreciated the the people who would make comments to say, well, you know, do we want a word that feels so extremely online?

Mignon: Yeah, they were talking about "doomscrolling," and it really is just such an online word. Maybe it was, you know, excluding other people.

Emily: Right. Right. On the other hand, "doomscrolling" is, I felt like, that for me is such a, it I, you know, there is no escaping doomscrolling in 2020 in my personal experience.

Emily: And so there was some it was gratifying to also see that, yes, this extends what, you know, far beyond my own experience and is really a, I think for people who are online, it is an almost universal experience this year.

Mignon: Yeah. I think it easily could have been my vote for word of the year. And I thought it was interesting, too, that I guess dictionary dot com's people's choice word was "unprecedented" and someone made a very strong argument in the voting against unprecedented that I thought was compelling in that this isn't unprecedented. There have been pandemics before. There's been political disruption and chaos and strife before. That nothing is unprecedented. And I apologize. I can't remember who it was.

Emily: It was Nicole Holliday.

Mignon: Nicole Holliday. I love that she said it's a word that provosts use, and and marketing from companies, "in this unprecedented year..." Yeah, I thought that was a very strong argument against it.

Mignon: It was really interesting to hear people's thoughts. And there were words that I was completely unfamiliar with. I had never heard "poggers" before. And I guess this is going to mark me as someone who's old; it's apparently popular with kids. Had you heard of "poggers" before?

Emily: I had not. And so I actually did a little Googling at the time while still trying to be in the meeting to be like, poggers? Poggers? I think it's actually it's it's not just the kids, but it's. Well, except that maybe all the kids are on Twitch. It's somehow associated with Twitch, which I barely I barely know what Twitch is also.

Mignon: Yeah, well, I appreciate it. I went into the chat and asked people to explain it to me. And it's typically used as an interjection, to say, "I passed my math exam today. Poggers!" or, you know, "Dude that's poggers!" or something like that.

Mignon: So I love that, you know, maybe they aren't the most widely known words that are nominees and some of the categories. But you get to learn what's trending in pop culture and maybe a segment of pop culture that you aren't familiar with.

Emily: So that was a really fun part of the vote, too. Yes, I agree.

Mignon: Yeah. So another really interesting thing is watching words of the year from other countries. So I love seeing these things, too. And there was another group chose "quarantine," but they had the they included the accompanying Spanish translation, which was "cuarentena."

Mignon: And I think that's fascinating. And then, you know, the British words of the year. It wasn't such a big deal to Americans, but when Megan and Harry sort of left, that was a huge deal in Britain, and "Megxit" was a word of the year there because that was such a big part of their culture. Do you do you spend any time looking at words from other countries? Have you seen any of that I haven't?

Emily: There is a Dutch word of the year that was very interesting. It's translate into English as one and a half meter society.

Mignon: One and a half meter society?

Emily: Yes. Yes. Apparently, that's a the Dutch version of social distance.

Mignon: Oh, that's fascinating. Like six feet apart.

Emily: Yeah. Let me. Here. I've got the whole, it's "anderhalvemetersamenleving."

Mignon: Wow. That's long.

Emily: Those Germanic languages. Look what they do. Right? It's a noun that refers to social distancing. That's a Dutch word of the year. I love it.

Mignon: Such a fun time of the year to think about all these different words, even when it's really been dominated this year by pandemic-related words.

Mignon: It's touched so much of our lives. And that really came out in the in the voting in the American Dialect Society. And there were other words here in there about politics. But the pandemic, it just sort of dominates everything it does.

Emily: And in some in some ways, I think, you know, the American Dialect Society and also in our in our list of of words, we included "defund," which I think was another very, very important term from the year. But and so I know a lot of people in the American Dialect vote last night also wanted to be sure that the protests had not been lost and that the calls, the all this very important political movement, defunding the police and to do something about police violence against Black people. So that was that was an interesting one, too.

Emily: And that was part of why I was actually drawn to the word "unprecedented" also because, I took Nicole's point, certainly, that these individual things are not unprecedented. The thing that is really remarkable, about 2020, is that they were all happening at the same time in the same year.

Emily: So it yeah, it's these these words that we choose are always, you know, they're always incomplete.

Mignon: All right, and that was the argument for "2020," the year "2020" was a strong contender for word of the year and and the argument for that was that there's so much that happened this year that it sort of encompassed everything instead of focusing just on the pandemic.

Emily: Yes.

Mignon: Do you have thoughts on the word of the year being not, you know, rigorously one word.

Emily: Oh, I mean, I'm a lexicographer. I would, define a word for me, right. It's in my thinking, a word is a, you know, a group of sounds that communicates a meaning. And it doesn't matter if there's a hyphen in there or a space in there. From a dictionaries perspective, we define a term when it is, when we consider a term eligible for defining as a word, when its meaning isn't readily determined by the meanings of its parts.

Emily: So, you know, it's the difference between word and a phrase.

Emily: Can we talk more about 2020 as a term?

Mignon: Yes! Let's talk about 2020 as a term. What are your thoughts?

Emily: The final vote for last night's American Dialect Society word of the year was there was a runoff right between, right, "COVID" and "2020." I had not been thinking of "2020" as a term functioning the way that "COVID" does. I think people were saying it's a noun, right, 2020, but it also has adjectival use. "This is so 2020." "This is just, I can't believe how 2020." This is when that was used as one of the nominees. I didn't realize it was on the list, and I thought it was very funny. I thought that was really kind of hilarious, a hilarious term to possibly call as the word of the year for 2020.

Mignon: Right. 2020's a word of the year is 2020. That would be funny. Yes, yes.

Emily: I think that's funny. I found myself being, resisting it as a, sort, of a kind of, superstition because the ... I think it was Gretchen McCullough who mentioned, who raised it. Well if this is the, you know, if this is the word of the year, other years have been nominated as the word of the year, are you somehow dooming is it is it like bringing an umbrella so that it won't rain or, you know, forgetting your umbrella so it's definitely going to rain? If you call 2020 the word of the year for 2020 is 2021 going to just be that much worse.

Mignon: Right. Right. We thought 2019 was bad.

Emily: Exactly right.

Mignon: Well, you know, I think we'll end on a hopeful note because I'm, just before we started talking, I saw that Andrea Lunsford, who used to run the writing program at Stanford, chose her personal word of the year not to represent the year, but as something that she would, sort of, focus on as a way to live life. And she chose the word "perseverance." And I thought that was, you know, positive and practical and something that I could think of too, is sort of an uplifting word, or at least at least a practical, helpful word to think about going into 2021.

Emily: And I think that's beautiful. I think it's a really and as we as we are, you know, now that there has been there are vaccines in theory, that there are vaccines that people are now getting for COVID. But we all have to persist to get to the other side, all the way to the other side of the pandemic.

Mignon: Right, there's still a few months.

Emily: Yeah.

Mignon: We won't all be able to get the vaccine.

Emily: I love that word. "Persevere" is, it's a beautiful word. And it is inspiring.

Mignon: It is. It sounds lovely and helpful.

Mignon: Well, thank you so much for being here with me today to discuss the words of the year. And if you'd like to catch more of Emily, you can find her as the co-host of the new podcast Word Matters and what's your Twitter handle? I know you're active on Twitter. 

Emily: @eabrewster.

Mignon: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for being here. And I look forward to Merriam-Webster's words of 2021. Hopefully they will be more positive.

Emily: Thank you so much for having me. This was so fun.

Mignon: It was. Have a good day.

Emily: You too.