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Defining what it means to be a lexicographer

by Sarah Morris - Copy Editor
Sat, Dec 9th 2017 05:00 pm

For 19 years, Smith College alumni Kory Stamper has worked as a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster dictionary, where she spends what can be up to nine months defining words, old and new. Not only does Stamper dictate the English language, but she is also a published author of the book “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries”.

Stamper came to visit The College at Brockport on Wednesday, Nov. 29, as a keynote speaker for the Writers Forum, where students were able to hear her read a chapter of her book and end the event with a Q & A. 

The Writers Forum was founded in 1967 in the Rochester area and hosts four authors to speak each semester to students about what they do. The Writers Forum Videotape Library, started in 1968, contains over 300 interviews, readings and discussions with authors who have come to talk and teach at Brockport. 

The archive library received grants from The National Endowment for the Arts and the Witter Bynner Foundation, which referred to it as “a national treasure.”

In charge of the Writers Forum are James Whorton, Ph.D., and Anne Panning, who both teach in the English Department at the college.

If there’s one thing Whorton wants students to know, it’s that  the readings are “free and open to all.” 

The Writers Forum has a YouTube page, called Brockport Writers Forum, where video interviews of authors who came to the college are posted. Some of the authors included on the YouTube page are  John Berryman, Margaret Atwood and Ishmael Reed.

If he could pick any author to come speak at Brockport, Whorton would most like to see novelist Jesmyn Ward.

“She’s a novelist from Mississippi who just won her second National Book Award, so she may be tough to get, but we’ll try,” Whorton said.

Based on her bio, Stamper seems like a gentle mother and wife who works for a dictionary company. However, her job is full of plent of excitment. Stamper works to define new words and updates old ones. 

However, there are so many more steps than one might think, and it can take months just to get through one word. She read the first chapter of “Word by Word”, part memoir and part dictionary history. 

The chapter mostly covered the process of her job to define the word “Take,” and how it took her months to finish it.

Stamper, who began working as an editorial assistant with Merriam-Webster in 1998, claimed to have “stumbled” into the job. She applied as an editorial assistant in response to an advertisement, not knowing it was one of the most famous dictionaries in the American-English language, and only found out during the interview. When she got the job, she sank right into it and knew it was exactly what she was meant to do.

“I’m honored to be closing out the 50th season of the series,” Stamper said. “I am also honored to be so close to the original Wegmans store, as Wegmans is and forever will be the best grocery store in the world, and no further discussion on this point will be allowed.”

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