Megan Figueroa: Hi, and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination.
Carrie Gillon: I’m Carrie Gillon.
Megan Figueroa: And I’m Megan Figueroa. Happy 2021!
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, Happy 2021! Woo!
Megan Figueroa: It’s a new year.
Carrie Gillon: We survived 2020. 2021 is shaping up to be very interesting. Canada’s having vaccine supply issues and hardly anyone is vaccinated. And, yeah, it’s upsetting.
Megan Figueroa: I always expect so much better of Canada.
Carrie Gillon: I mean, to be fair, Canada bought nine times as many vaccines as was necessary to vaccinate the entire population so that we would all be vaccinated and then also could donate whatever was not needed to other countries later. But the problem is so far only two vaccines have been okayed – Moderna and Pfizer. Pfizer’s having supply issues and Moderna might be, too. So, yeah, we need a third vaccine or something.
Megan Figueroa: I am super grateful and lucky that I got my first dose – I guess it’s, what, been 10 days or so now. Still can’t believe I got it before my parents. I mean, the whole thing is just so strange. So strange. I mean, it’s one of those things where it’s like, I’m grateful because me getting it helps everyone. When you can get it, get it. Don’t feel like, “Oh, I shouldn’t get it because I’m not over 65” or whatever. But it’s just so strange, the rollout.
Carrie Gillon: It’s just so haphazard. Like, Arizona has made this decision, and other states have made a different decision, and I mean, there’s cases to be made for every single decision. Some countries, even, have decided to give it to younger people first because they’re the people running around spreading it more. I’m not an epidemiologist, so I don’t know which way is right. It just seems like every decision could be right or could be very wrong. And so, I’m just like, ah! Just hurry up so that order doesn’t matter so much.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. Speaking of epidemiologists, I was thinking yesterday, what a sexy job to have right now. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Well, and also very tiring because everyone thinks they know your job.
Megan Figueroa: No, I know, but I’m so grateful to them. It’s like all of a sudden people know what an epidemiologist is.
Carrie Gillon: So true.
Megan Figueroa: It’s just like, they’ve been putting the work in all this time and – anyway, shout out to epidemiologists. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Speaking of sexy jobs – [laughter]
Megan Figueroa: Look at you trying to do some segues like I do.
Carrie Gillon: We speak to a lexicographer – which, I love that word. I think it’s such a fun word.
Megan Figueroa: It’s a good word.
Carrie Gillon: It’s fun to say. And also, before we get to that, Merriam-Webster added 520 new words to the dictionary this year.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, wow.
Carrie Gillon: From “ASMR” to “silver fox.”
Megan Figueroa: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. [Laughter] Okay, if you were to put someone’s picture next to “silver fox,” who would it be?
Carrie Gillon: Oh, Anderson Cooper.
Megan Figueroa: Me too! That’s what I was thinking. I just wanted to shout out Anderson Cooper for “silver fox.”
Carrie Gillon: I mean, I don’t know who else has been called a silver fox, honestly. He’s the only person I know of for sure.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. So great. 520 – do they usually add that many? Do you know?
Carrie Gillon: I have no idea. It’s too bad we can’t ask today’s guest – from a few weeks ago.
Megan Figueroa: So, what else did they add?
Carrie Gillon: Here’s some other interesting things. These ones are all related to what happened in the last – since 2019 to 2021. So, “long-hauler,” a person who experiences one or more long-term effects following initial improvement or recovery from a serious illness such as COVID-19.
Megan Figueroa: Wait. Do you think anyone will ever use that for anything besides COVID-19?
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. If they’re similar effects, yes, for sure.
Megan Figueroa: In my mind it’s totally just related to COVID-19.
Carrie Gillon: So far. But any disease technically could – I think hepatitis A, you can have chronic hepatitis A. When I think about it, that’s long-haul, basically. We just never called it that. Why not be a “long-hauler” for hepatitis A or whatever. It’s not how we use it yet, but I think we will.
“Pod” and “bubble,” a small group of people, family friends – sorry – family members, friends, co-workers, or classmates who regularly interact closely with one another but with few or no others in order to minimize exposure.
Megan Figueroa: Do you think that’s gonna last?
Carrie Gillon: I dunno. I mean, if COVID does, then yes. And COVID’s lasting because we got these new variants and – ugh! The vaccine’s not as good against at least the South African one. “Bubble” also gained an additional meaning – an area within which sports teams stay isolated from the general public during a series of scheduled games. I think that one might not survive just because it’s very specific. But I dunno. I guess we’ll find out.
Megan Figueroa: That is very specific, yeah.
Carrie Gillon: “Wet market,” a market that sells perishable items such as fresh meat and produce and sometimes live animals, which are often slaughtered on-site.
Megan Figueroa: Never heard that.
Carrie Gillon: Hm? You’ve never heard “wet market”?
Megan Figueroa: Never heard that. No!
Carrie Gillon: That’s where COVID-19 probably came from was a wet market in China.
Megan Figueroa: Um.
Carrie Gillon: [Laughs] Yeah! Like, where have you /bin/?
Megan Figueroa: Where have I /bin/? Canadian?
Carrie Gillon: Yes.
Megan Figueroa: I have /bin/ trying to just stay above water. Wow. Yeah, no, I – okay, cool. I mean, not “cool,” but I just – I learned something.
Carrie Gillon: There’s been a lot of racist chatter about wet markets and how gross they are. But a wet market is just the inverse of a dried goods store. Like, sure, I’m not super comfortable with live animals being slaughtered, but that’s on me. That’s not on the fact that wet markets exist. But like, not all wet markets have that anyway, and literally all they mean is the inverse of dry goods.
Megan Figueroa: [Sigh] Racism.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, racism. Yep. Speaking of racism, one of them that was added was “digital blackface.”
Megan Figueroa: Oh, good. I think more people need to know what that is. So, tell us what it is.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, just in case – the use by white people of digital depictions of black or brown people or skin tones especially for the purpose of self-representation or self-expression. Often, it involves using reaction gifs that are of black people, but it can be other – it’s a broader thing than just that.
Megan Figueroa: Once it was pointed out to me, digital blackface, one of my favorite gifs to use was Titus from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And so, I was like, “Okay, not gonna do that anymore.” Bye, Titus. I still love you.
Carrie Gillon: I love Titus so much.
Megan Figueroa: No, it’s – yeah. Okay, what’s one that – I mean, we talk about this with our guest today a little bit – but what’s one that seems like it would’ve been in there a long time ago for you but is just making it now?
Carrie Gillon: That’s a good question, yeah, because we do explain why it takes so long for things to get into here. Let’s see. Maybe “flex,” an act of bragging or showing off. Seems kind of old to me. I dunno. It’s hard to really remember time.
Megan Figueroa: Yes, it is. Time and space are fake. I mean, you’ve only told me a few of them, but “silver fox” kind of surprises me.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, that’s true. That’s been around for a long time – basically ever since Anderson Cooper has been on the air, at least as far as I was aware of him as a human being.
Megan Figueroa: Okay, I just had to Google this. I just have to say this is really cool. They added the “@” symbol.
Carrie Gillon: Yes! That’s true. I like that.
Megan Figueroa: That’s really, really cool.
Carrie Gillon: That’s not something I ever would’ve expected.
Megan Figueroa: That’s a sexy addition. I love that. So, “@,” informal, to respond to a challenge or disparage the claim or opinion of someone, usually used in the phrase, “Don’t @ me,” with the “@” symbol. That’s so cool!
Carrie Gillon: It leads exactly directly into our interview with Kory Stamper who is a lexicographer but also, crucially, is in this new Netflix show The History of Swearing. We talk a lot about lexicography and stuff but also a lot about swearing. Cover your ears!
Megan Figueroa: This is not safe for work. Not safe for work.
Carrie Gillon: Extra not safe for work.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, exactly. And, oh my gosh, please go watch History of Swear Words on Netflix.
Carrie Gillon: It’s charming.
Megan Figueroa: It’s fucking fantastic.
Carrie Gillon: I never expected to think that, but it’s very charming.
Megan Figueroa: So charming. I know. Nick Cage, you’re a national treasure. It wasn’t the Declaration of Independence. It was you all along. It was you.
Carrie Gillon: It was like, “Nick Cage, and what we found along the way.”
Megan Figueroa: Exactly! Well, enjoy.
Carrie Gillon: Today, we’re very excited to have Kory Stamper, who is a lexicographer, author, speaker, speech writer, and freelance lexicographer for American English at Cambridge University Press. She’s also the author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. She’s also one of the talking heads on The History of Swearing on Netflix, which is one of the reasons we wanted to have her on. We wanted to have her on for other reasons too, but it was a nice time. So, welcome, Kory.
Megan Figueroa: Thank you so much for being with us.
Kory Stamper: Yeah! Thanks so much for having me.
Megan Figueroa: I just gotta say that the title of you book is probably the sexiest thing that’s ever been said about dictionaries. Like, to think about the secret life of them.
Kory Stamper: I know. It does make is seem like Tinker Sailor Solider Spy.
Megan Figueroa: That’s right. Yes.
Kory Stamper: I mean, sometimes it approaches that in its weird complexity, but yeah.
Megan Figueroa: So, tell us, what is lexicography?
Kory Stamper: Lexicography is the art or craft or process of writing and editing dictionaries or of studying how dictionaries are written. I’m a lexicographer. I write dictionaries. And when I say I write dictionaries, my job is to do the definitions and the usage information that goes with them. There’re other specialist lexicographers who do things like they only do pronunciation, or they only do the etymology – we call them “etymologists.” I’m a general editor. That means that I do all the non-technical stuff.
Megan Figueroa: When you say “usage,” that’s when I, perhaps, go on to merriam-webster.com, put a word in, and then I see a thing that says – like, a usage note or something – “considered vulgar,” or something, or “offensive.”
Kory Stamper: Right. Those are the usage notes that we write. We also write sort of longer ones. There’s longer usage paragraphs. Lots of dictionaries use them at words that are particularly finicky. Words like “irregardless” gets a big usage paragraph. There’s a couple of really offensive slurs that have usage paragraphs explaining why we put one there.
Megan Figueroa: Now I’m wondering – and I know that this is silly, and probably the answer’s no – but does “moist” have a usage note? [Laughter]
Kory Stamper: No, it doesn’t. But you know what, I feel like it would serve dictionaries well to at least acknowledge that people say they hate it so much. It’s a funny thing to me because I think of all the words to hate – there’re so many other words to hate. And I get that the phonotactics of “moist” really irritate folks, but when people are like, “I can’t stand the word ‘moist,’” I’m thinking, “Really?” There are so many other words that I can’t stand for other reasons. But if “moist” is the hill you wanna die on, go for it.
Megan Figueroa: Do you think it’s the “oi” sound? Is that what you think is the bit?
Kory Stamper: I think it’s the “oi” and the S. I think it’s just – it seems to be the platonic ideal of every phonological feature in the wrong order to upset people.
Carrie Gillon: Interesting. Because I’m one of those people that’s not bothered by the word “moist” at all.
Megan Figueroa: Me neither.
Carrie Gillon: And I have sound issues. There are certain sounds that I cannot tolerate. But “moist” is fine. But I wondered if it was partially semantic, too, like what it means, if that’s part of the reason or no. I dunno. It’s always fascinated me that this word bothers so many people.
Kory Stamper: I don’t know if it’s semantics so much as it is the pragmatics of it. “Moist” gets applied to things like towelettes and “moist” is used of bodily fluids, right. So, I think that you’ve got the weird phonetics of “moist,” and then you add it to, like, “moist towelette.” I actually saw a linguist I follow on Twitter this week retweeted something that was like, “All right, ‘moist’ lovers, are you happy now?” Someone had described a cake as being “damp,” and he was like, “Are you happy? Do you see what you’ve done now?” [Groans and laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Yes, reclaim “moist.”
Kory Stamper: Yeah, that’s wrong. Just wrong.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, you do not want your cake to be damp at all.
Kory Stamper: Yeah. So gross. So, so gross.
Carrie Gillon: Okay, speaking of the meaning of words and all of this, why did you decide to become a lexicographer?
Kory Stamper: Well, it was kind of – it started as an accident. Then it sort of blossomed into me finding that this was a thing that I was really good at. I actually – I went to school and I got a degree in Medieval Studies. I’m the nerd that has all of the dead languages in their back pocket. After I graduated with my incredibly useful degree, I thought, “Well, you know, I’ve done editing and copy-editing as part of my work study, so maybe I’ll try and get a job in publishing.” I happened to answer – this is so long ago – I answered a paper want-ad in the local newspaper. There are gonna be listeners that don’t even know what that is.
Carrie Gillon: That’s true.
Megan Figueroa: I barely do.
Kory Stamper: In olden times, when you wanted a job, the newspaper would print job listings. I applied for a job that was – all it said was “an editorial assistant at a reference company.” I thought, “Okay.” It wasn’t until I got called for the interview that I found out it was for Merriam-Webster, which is a big dictionary publisher in America. I went in. I got the job because I know dead languages. I think they were thinking, “Well, eventually, we’ll have her work with the etymologists,” just as a junior etymologist.
Megan Figueroa: Because of your medieval background – “medieval background” – medieval studies.
Kory Stamper: [Laughs] And also medieval background, yeah. When I got there, part of the training that you have to go through to write dictionaries is – because it’s not an academic pursuit. It’s really a craft. It’s a thing you have to learn how to do. Every editor and every lexicographer that I know has had to go through a training period where you basically come in with all of your knowledge of English rules of grammar and rules of style, and you basically lay them all out on the table, and the senior editor takes them all and crumples them into a ball and says, “That’s not what English is. Your job as a lexicographer is to describe the English language as it is currently used not as grammarians or style guides or teachers think it should be used.”
You go through basically relearning grammar because you’re now the person who has to decide what part of speech something is. That means that you can’t say, “Well, ‘good’ can’t be an adverb because my teacher said it couldn’t be an adverb.” But people say, “I’m good,” all the time. So, now it has to be an adverb. You re-learn grammar and then you learn how to actually write a dictionary definition. It’s a form of writing that is heavily rule-bound and really arcane and really weird.
After I went through the training, I was immediately put on a defining project to work on the addenda to Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. I loved it. It was the sort of thing where the deeper I got into how each word is used and analyzing the use and doing some discourse analysis on all of these little written bits of language that we collect, it just was like, “I really like this. I enjoy this a lot.”
I stayed a general editor. I didn’t do much etymology at all. That was the trajectory of it. It’s the type of job, I think, where you know within six months whether you’re gonna be able to survive doing it or not because not only is the work really intense, but the atmosphere of most dictionary companies is also very intense. At Merriam-Webster there was a rule of silence on the editorial floor that had been lifted a couple of years before I came on, but still, nobody talked on the editorial floor. If you had any kind of conversation with people, it was always at this sotto voce whisper, or you sent notes, or you sent emails. You never had any – if you spoke in a conversational tone, people would just lose their minds. I knew pretty much, I dunno, within 6 to 8 months that this was a job I could do. That’s basically what I’ve been doing since.
Carrie Gillon: I think I remember you talking about the quiet thing on the floor in your previous podcast, which I’ve already – what was that called again?
Kory Stamper: Fiat Lux.
Carrie Gillon: Right, right, right. I remember being so fascinated by that. Like, oh, they’re like monks.
Kory Stamper: Yeah. Oh, it’s true. James Murray, who was the original editor of the big old dictionary that came to be called “the OED,” called his office where he wrote the “scriptorium.” That just set it up for generations of lexicographers afterwards. There is this very weird, “We are doing something in service to a higher power, and that higher power is English.” It gets weird. It’s a weird thing.
Megan Figueroa: I like how you called it a “craft” because I think that so many people just have no idea what lexicography is. I think it’s getting better because of – I mean, I think History of Swear Words is going to rocket the field into – at least rocket. I mean, I saw it on Netflix. It was, like, Number 8 of the Top 10.
Kory Stamper: Something like that, yeah. I haven’t even checked. But my adult daughter who cares about such things occasionally texts me, and she’s like, “You’re in the Top 10!” I’m like, “What are we talking about? Top 10 of what?”
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. It’s doing so great. I mean, I was one of the people on Twitter, I was like, “Oh my god, now I can point to something when people are like, ‘What do you do?’” Even though it’s not quite what I do, but I can be like, “This is like linguistics” – or it is linguistics. So, to call it a craft, I just think it’s great because I know that, as a kid, I would’ve loved to know that lexicography was a thing even though you can’t really major in it. I was the kid, the nerd, that I loved words so much that I was like, “I’ll just study English.” But that’s not what English majors do, I found out quickly.
Kory Stamper: I think part of why I loved medieval studies was because it was all, you know, this stuff that I ended up doing at Merriam-Webster just with dead languages. I spent so much time with Latin and Old English and Old Norse. I mean, most of my word in my undergrad was translation-based. When you’re doing translations, you’re doing exactly the same thing you do with lexicography. You are looking at context, and you’re searching for the right words to communicate what this word means with the right register or the right tone, the right context.
I was gonna get an English major. Well, originally, I was gonna get a pre-med major. And then I was like, “Well, I’ll get an English major.” But then I had one class that was on the Icelandic medieval family saga, and I was like, “Oh, no, I wanna do this. This is terrible and weird, and I love it. I wanna do this.”
Megan Figueroa: That’s beautifully nerdy.
Carrie Gillon: Why are you interested in the history of swearing in particular?
Kory Stamper: Swearing is one of those things that, well, for a long time, and even now, there’re lots of people who feel like it shouldn’t be tracked, it shouldn’t be entered into dictionaries, it shouldn’t be studied because it’s taboo. But the things that we think are taboo, and the changes in what is taboo over the centuries, really tells you a lot about the mores of society. I dunno. I really like studying words that are – I mean, I liked studying taboo words because it’s like a puzzle. If they don’t get printed as much, then you have to really go through things like, “Okay, well I’m gonna go through movie transcripts to see how ‘fuck’ is used,” or “I’m gonna go through rap lyrics to look at the evolution of the word ‘bitch.’”
That kind of stuff is so interesting to me because it’s not – I think a lot of people think that dictionaries should or do track higher level literary forms. That’s why people get upset when they find words like “irregardless” in the dictionary because that shouldn’t be given any sort of imprimatur. You shouldn’t be able to look it up. It shouldn’t exist.
Taboos are the same way. Taboo words are always – you know, I tell people when they buy dictionaries the two things they need to look up are they need to see if the word “fuck” is entered into the dictionary, and then they need to take a look at a word like “go” or “do” and see how extensive it is. Because those are the two you can adequately track and define a word as complex as “go,” that’s a sign of one type of excellence. And if a dictionary enters “fuck,” then that tells you that they’re actually tracking as much of the language as possible. Some dictionaries don’t.
I just love taboo words because I think they tell us so much about culture. And because they’re a flash point for culture, the sociolinguistics of swearing just fascinates me. Even though I’m not a linguist, from the outside looking in, seeing things like – how are women who swear perceived; how are black people who swear perceived; how are white men who are members of congress swearing at their colleagues perceived? All of these things really fascinate me. It’s all around taboo – who gets to use taboo and who doesn’t get to use taboo.
Megan Figueroa: This is probably too philosophical, but I’m wondering – okay, swearing doesn’t get the credit it deserves for being creative. It’s just called “vulgar.” But what if people start giving it the credit that it deserves, and then it’s not vulgar anymore, is it still swearing?
Kory Stamper: This is so interesting because I think this touches on the word “damn.” We could even talk about the word “ass,” which is I think a similar trajectory but slightly – like a parallel trajectory. “Damn” started out as possibly one of the most inflammatory swear words that existed. It was an actual swear. You were condemning a person eternally to hell. You don’t get any harsher than that.
Over the years, over the centuries, it just sat in one spot. It didn’t become any more offensive. It really didn’t become any less offensive, really, until the 1800s. Then you start seeing it inching down more and more. We start actually replacing it with swears that tend to be scatological or sexual. It just inches down. Now, so few people think of it as a swear word. It doesn’t get bleeped out on radio. It doesn’t get bleeped out on TV.
There is this weird – I mean, all language changes. This is why there are people like me who record those changes. You can’t definitively look at any taboo word and say, “This will never be acceptable,” because a.) you don’t know what the future’s gonna bring and b.) we have evidence of swear words that have suddenly ameliorated to the point where they’re like, meh, whatever. They might be shocking if your 2- or 3-year-old said them to you. And it wouldn’t be shocking like, “You are in time-out forever,” it would just be like, “Oh, hehe! Don’t say that. Not a good word to say.” So, yeah, I mean, but there will always be taboo words. Because we just, I mean, we like taboo things. I just don’t think that we’d ever give up taboo.
Megan Figueroa: I think this is a perfect point to bring up what I think is a perfect tweet. This is by you. Let me talk about – so thinking about amelioration of words and just trajectory of words – I wanna talk about reclamation of “pussy.” Great episode, obviously. I mean, I loved all the episodes. I watched – I binged it, all of it, in one night. Let me just read your tweet to you. Okay. So, you’re retweeting a story where – so I don’t even wanna talk about the coup. But, you know, America’s having some trouble. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Mildly. Just a little bit.
Megan Figueroa: We have a president and a vice president. The president called the vice president a “pussy.” And so, you retweet an article about this. And you say, “Absolutely outrageous that T called Pence a pussy as Pence clearly lacks both warmth and depth.” It’s beautiful. I love it. It’s perfect. This is also mentioned in the episode – the History of Swearing episode – about “pussy,” where it’s like, “Why is ‘pussy’ associated with ‘weak’ when it’s so strong?”
Kory Stamper: Right.
Megan Figueroa: Carrie has often said this. Carrie, you’ve said this multiple times on our podcast, I think.
Carrie Gillon: Probably. [Laughter] Sounds like something I would say.
Megan Figueroa: Can we talk about what it means for some words to be a slur for some people to say but, at the same time, are being reclaimed by others?
Kory Stamper: Yeah, totally. When we talk about – first we should talk about what linguistic reclamation is for people that don’t know what that is. Linguistic reclamation is a process by which a group of people who are often called a slur or are often denigrated with certain swears decide to strip the power of that word by reclaiming it as their own, reclaiming it as an identity.
In my book, I have a chapter on the word “bitch,” which is unevenly reclaimed. Some women have reclaimed “bitch” as sort of, “Look, if you’re gonna call us ‘domineering,’ that’s just a sign of women being strong. And so, a ‘bitch’ is a strong, take no prisoners kind of woman.” That reclamation is uneven. Linguistic reclamation often is uneven because it assumes that the targeted group, the people who are the recipients of these slurs, all have the same feelings about the severity of that slur, about when it’s appropriate to use and not appropriate to use.
“Pussy” is one of those words that’s undergoing reclamation. What’s really interesting about “pussy” is that the reclamation of it is happening by women who are taking it as a sign of like, “This is my strength. The pussy is powerful. Pussy power.” But the main slur of “pussy” has two branches of meaning. When you’re using “pussy” of women, it’s usually to objectify them as a sex objects, sexual partners. It has the same tone as like, “a piece of ass.” It’s very objectifying. When it’s used of men, it’s used to call them “weak,” “effeminate,” “inefficient.”
The thing that’s interesting is the reclamation of “pussy” is happening by women, but they are objecting to the slur as it’s applied to men not necessarily as it’s applied to women, which is a weird pattern of reclamation, honestly. Usually, the pattern is you call me a slur, and I take that immediate meaning, the thing applied to me, and I claim it as an identity, I make it an in-group word, and now it’s removed the sting of it.
This is a reclamation of the whole word not just one particular use of the word, which is really fascinating to me because when we talk about linguistic reclamation, the idea is that it has to originate, really, with the primary group that it’s targeted with. But at the same time when men are called “pussies,” they’re being compared to women’s genitalia. And so, how do they reclaim that? Because even their uses of “pussy” to denigrate women as just a sex object – it’s kind of a mess. It’s interesting to me that women are reclaiming the male slur and really saying, “Look, pussy is powerful. The idea that pussy is weak is offensive,” but not saying, “Stop calling men ‘pussies.’” It’s reclaiming it as a female identity.
Megan Figueroa: Thinking about the presidency that we just survived or are about to survive – at least some of us – the full circle-ness of “pussy.” Because right before the election we get this video tape of Trump saying, “Grab ‘em by the pussy.”
[Excerpt video tape]
Donald Trump: You can do anything.
Billy Bush: Whatever you want.
Donald Trump: Grab ‘em by the pussy.
Megan Figueroa: And then there was a reclamation of this “pussy grabs back” and the pussy hats and stuff. Is that an example of reclaiming the genitalia part of it not the calling men “weak” kind of thing?
Kory Stamper: I think so. And I think what it is, is it’s a reclamation of – in that original use, “Grab ‘em by the pussy,” that sort of pulls on the earlier use of women just as sex objects. They have no identity apart from what they can provide sexually. That particular reclamation with the women’s march and the pussy hats and everything else is really a reclamation and a re-embodiment. “Grab ‘em by the pussy” refers to specific women who have a whole body, “This is my whole body, and I am marching against you with my whole body and not just my pussy.”
It’s not, I mean, I would say it’s a reclamation, but it’s not a direct refutation. It’s just a way of re-seeding it like, “Hey, this weird metonymy that’s happened where women are only referred to by their genitalia is wrong. We are fixing that.” When we talk about linguistic reclamation, I say it’s “uneven,” and part of why it’s uneven is because it involves people, and it’s often situated within a particular social context, too. The reclamation of “pussy” has a very particular social context now, right, that in the Trump era has taken on new meaning.
I think of “WAP,” too, right. Now, we’ve got Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion singing “WAP” – “wet ass pussy” – and that’s shocking because it is a reclamation of the sexual nature of the pussy as opposed to saying, “No, we’re more than pussies,” it’s saying, “Nope, my pussy gets an entire song. We’re gonna talk about it.” That’s a specific context, too. “WAP” sits in a specific context. And part of why it shocks is when it’s taken outside of that context. Well, now, we have all these other contextual slurs that center around the word “pussy.” Now what are we gonna do with that?
Carrie Gillon: Every time I think about the song I always think about, unfortunately, Ben Shapiro’s response to it. He couldn’t even say, “wet ass pussy.” He could only say, “wet ass P.”
Kory Stamper: “Wet ass P,” “wet ass P-word.”
Carrie Gillon: Every time. [Laughter]
Kory Stamper: I know!
Carrie Gillon: He manages to suck out all of the sex from that song.
Kory Stamper: It’s amazing. I mean, he could work as an MPAA censor because I think that he really does completely flatten any kind of allure that any of these words have.
Megan Figueroa: 100%.
Carrie Gillon: Just him walking into the room sucks everyone dry.
Kory Stamper: Yeah, it’s just like, oh lord. He’s the moist towelette of censorship. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Censorship as a moist towelette – nice.
Kory Stamper: Yes. Oh boy.
Carrie Gillon: We almost started talking about it before we started recording but what was the filming like? Where were you filmed? I think Megan asked if it was at your place. We’ll start there, I guess.
Kory Stamper: No, because of COVID protocols, the filming – I have nothing to compare this to, so realize that when I say all of these things with authority, I’m just talking out my ass here – but because of COVID protocols the filming was all done in isolation. I didn’t meet anyone else. I talked to the producers and the writing group via Zoom. That was about it.
They rented an Airbnb that was big enough that would accommodate everybody within a certain square footage so that we could be safe COVID-wise. I showed up to a rented apartment, and then noticed that the shirt I had brought to wear, the only fancy shirt I own, matched the background. That made me feel very fancy.
Megan Figueroa: It was an amazing shirt.
Kory Stamper: It’s a great shirt. I’m not joking when I say it is the only fancy shirt I own at this point because –
Carrie Gillon: Who has fancy shirts anymore?
Kory Stamper: I know! C’mon. I know. We’ve all moved to soft pants and daytime pajamas. That’s just where we’re at now.
Megan Figueroa: Exactly.
Kory Stamper: It was a little weird. I will say I had lots of fun doing the filming. But then it was very weird to be like – it’s weird when you do this thing, and you don’t know how it fits into the broader context of what’s happening.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. What was that like watching yourself and also the bigger context?
Megan Figueroa: Or have you watched yourself?
Kory Stamper: I have watched myself. One of my kids visited for Christmas and stayed for quite a while. She was like, “I’m gonna wait to go home until after your Netflix debut.” I was like, “What a weird world we live in that that’s even a sentence.” We all watched it together. I’ve done video work before, so the watching myself wasn’t too weird and listening to myself wasn’t too weird, so I didn’t get hung up on that. I actually loved it. I thought that the way that the writing team had crafted the whole narrative for each word was so well done and clearly well researched, which was super nice. I had a lot of fun. I might even watch it again. It was so great.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, no, I’ll definitely be watching it again. I just loved it. And, okay, how perfect is Nick Cage at swearing. I mean, he is so good at swearing. His “fuck,” his scream “fuck,” was epic.
Kory Stamper: It was. It absolutely was. I think my other favorite part was Nick Offerman giggling at his own dick joke.
Carrie Gillon: Yes, it was so cute!
Megan Figueroa: Oh my god! I was so happy. I mean, Nick Offerman is one of my favorite people that I don’t know in real life. He’s a sweetheart, and I was so glad when he popped up the first time.
Kory Stamper: The filming was weird but fun and great. I mean, you know. I think lots of people, when this debuted, people were like, “[gasp] What’s Nick Cage like?” And I’m like, “I don’t know. I didn’t get to meet him.” And then everyone’s like, “Aw.” “Sorry.”
Carrie Gillon: I mean, even without COVID, I would’ve been very surprised if you had gotten to meet him.
Kory Stamper: Oh, yeah, same. Very same. They would’ve been like, “All right. Here’s where all the – okay, we’re just gonna do all of the talking heads over here, and there’s craft services over there.”
Megan Figueroa: How did they approach you with this?
Kory Stamper: I think what had happened was that the showrunner had seen some videos I had done for a pop culture website called, “The A.V. Club” I had done some videos for them on the history of pop culture phrases. One of them was “asshat,” and one of them was “va-jay-jay.”
Megan Figueroa: Oh man, “va-jay-jay” – it’s been so long since I’ve heard that! That’s like, Oprah-coined, right?
Kory Stamper: Yeah. “My va-jay-jay is paining.” That is it, yes. That seems like 7 million years ago now.
Carrie Gillon: Seriously.
Kory Stamper: Time is weird. They saw that. And then the showrunner I think had read my book. In my book, I have a chapter on the word “bitch” – how “bitch” got defined in dictionaries, the definitions that have been left out of dictionaries and what that says about dictionary writers, the history of profanity in dictionaries generally. I think those two things they were like, “We would like to have this lady come on to talk about the acronymic etymology of ‘fuck.’” So, they just approached me and said, “Would you be interested in this project?” And I was like, “Oh, yes, this is my jam. I love this.” Totally.
Megan Figueroa: I will not stop fangirling because it was so good.
Carrie Gillon: It was so fun.
Kory Stamper: It was really good. I was really – yeah – I was so happy with it. I mean, not that I had any say in what happened, but I was so happy with how it turned out.
Carrie Gillon: It could’ve gone so badly. I was a little worried because – you know.
Kory Stamper: Oh, yeah.
Carrie Gillon: Swearing is often mischaracterized and eh. But, yeah, no, they did a really good job. I really enjoyed watching Nick Cage swear at so many people.
Megan Figueroa: Do you have a favorite episode? Do you think one came out particularly well?
Kory Stamper: I actually really liked the episode on “pussy.” And I liked the episode on “fuck” because I just – “fuck” is a great word. I think that they treated it with appropriate marvel and wonder. But the “pussy” episode – I mean, I really liked all of them. The episode on I think it was “shit” that talked about the PMRC – the Parents Music Resource Center – and the use of parental advisory stickers, and Elvis Mitchell’s points about how that’s just kinda racist because they got put mostly on rap albums. It was like, “This is so great!” This is stuff I didn’t expect would be in, and I was so excited to have it all folded in with profanity because it just made so much sense. It was great.
Megan Figueroa: 100%. I was like, “They’re doing such a good job with this. They’re pointing out that it’s racist. This is so good.” The research that went into it to make sure that these points were talked about is excellent.
Kory Stamper: I was super excited to see it all.
Carrie Gillon: So great when pop culture actually gets a stamp of approval from linguists and lexicographers. How rare is that?
Kory Stamper: Oh, totally. Absolutely. I mean, part of the thing that was exciting to me, too, about being involved is particularly so many of these words – I mean, I said this earlier – but so many of these words have a life that’s outside of the written record. Lexicographers tend to only look at the written record because it’s supposedly immutable, and you can print it out and study it. So, to be able to talk about things like, “How does the word ‘dick’ move through rap?” or “How does the word ‘pussy’ move through protest movements and through riot girl punk rock?”
That stuff is so exciting to me because one of the weird things about lexicography and being a lexicographer is we know that there’s language and then there’s writing, and we’re studying writing. Where language change actually happens is not the thing that we’re looking at to document language change. It’s not just that we’re way behind the curve on where language change is, it means that we’re actually missing this whole area where language changes. We’re missing whole registers, whole dialects, whole fields of cultural study and culture because they’re not written down. So, to be able to really research all of these swear words and kinda dive in – I had so much fun researching “pussy” through rap lyrics. It was great!
That’s just a thing that traditional lexicographers tend not to look at. It was super, super fun to do that and also a little heartbreaking because it felt like there’s so much language that happens off the page, that happens outside of edited, printed prose. Even language that is transcribed, transcriptions of broadcasts and stuff, those aren’t necessarily accurate. That’s not language either. Language is what’s happening now – the conversation that’s happening between two or more people in the moment. That’s where language happens. You don’t get that as a lexicographer.
Megan Figueroa: Would that help explain why – I think that so many people, when they see an article that comes out, like, “Here are the new words added to a dictionary,” where they’re like, “I’ve been hearing that word for so long. Why is it just now?” Is that what’s happening?
Kory Stamper: Oh, totally. I mean, dictionary writing is really interesting because I think the internet’s changed it a lot. Historically, when you wrote a dictionary, you were writing a printed book. That printed book, in America at least, is a commercial product that is driven, ultimately, by market forces. So, the idea is we have people who will spend $28.00 on a dictionary, and then we backwards engineer from that. How many pages does that mean? How many pages do we need to keep for the frontmatter that’s explanatory? How many pages for the back matter? What’s the typeface? What’s our margin gonna be? All of this stuff gets figured out.
And then as a lexicographer, when you start defining, and you’re adding new words or your revising old words, what’s driven into your head is you have to be accurate and concise. If you’re gonna enter a word into the dictionary, it really needs to be completely established in the language because it takes a lot more effort to remove a word from the dictionary than it does to put one in. If we’re gonna put one in, we wanna make sure it sticks around.
That means that most lexicographers who – I would say there’s two generations of lexicographers. I bridge both of them. I was trained in the paper lexicography, and now I do entirely digital lexicography. People trained in the paper, dead tree lexicography are used to looking at new words and going, “Well, what’s its penetration in the language? Does it have widespread use geographically and tonally? Does it have a sustained use in a variety of sources? Does it have an established meaning that’s not still wishy-washy mashing around – I can nail down one meaning?” That means, then, that the new words that get into dictionaries tend to be old. That’s just how it works.
When you’re doing digital lexicography, we’re not bound by space constraints – now. If I want to suddenly add “WAP” – let’s say that “WAP” becomes a slang term that refers to, I dunno, a strong woman. Let’s just say that that happens. If I wanna add that in, I can. I’m not bound by, you know, you have 2,000 pages and, if this turns a line, then that means we have to add a new folio, and that means the dictionary will be $29.00, and no one will buy it. If that’s the case, then I can add whatever I want.
And then the question becomes not “Does it have the penetration?” but broader questions that get more into the sociolinguistics of things. Most of the time, internet slang, particularly, morphs very quickly. Do I fully understand what this means? Do I fully grasp its context? I hear a lot from people who get really upset that slang gets into the dictionary. People are gonna get upset about something, why not that?
Having to explain the point of a dictionary’s not, again, to say, “This is the English language.” It’s to help people who don’t know what these words mean find out what these words mean. If someone is googling this new word “WAP,” let’s say, and the only thing they find is “Urban Dictionary,” well, that might be accurate, or it might not be accurate.
Megan Figueroa: That’s exactly what I just thinking. I was like, “We don’t wanna have to rely on ‘Urban Dictionary’ because some people get really sassy on there and lie.”
Kory Stamper: Oh, yeah. What’s interesting is that you’ve got this very weird bridge now where the words that are – you’re still entering a lot of new words. I mean, some of this, too, is, frankly, just marketing. No one is going to say that I have entered a new meaning of “green” to the dictionary. No one cares. But if I enter “WAP,” that would be super – that’s marketing gold. Or if I enter something – I’m trying to think of something that’s recent that is not depressing. Let’s say that I’m gonna enter “covidiot,” which is a word I don’t like, but it’s one you see around. If I’m gonna enter “covidiot,” that’s not core vocabulary, but it’s sexy, and so that’s what gets put into press releases.
Where I’m working now, Cambridge, we update our online dictionary constantly – like every couple of weeks – because that’s kind of the speed at which we can do things. That’s the speed at which language moves, and people need new information about it.
Megan Figueroa: It is nice that you’re able to update so often now and that can move closer with how people are moving and how language is moving.
Kory Stamper: Oh, totally, yeah, it is nice. The weird thing about it is lots of people will say things like, “Oh, the internet must’ve killed dictionaries.” You hear this sort of thing a lot, “A popular search engine whose name I won’t say because they’re very litigious has killed dictionaries.” The internet is a bane and a boon to the lexicographer. It’s a bane because there’s so much now that we have access to, and the reality is that there are fewer, and fewer, and fewer lexicographers who are doing this. It’s just the market, again, it’s commercial in America. The market doesn’t support big dictionary companies anymore.
So, the bane is that there’s so much coming at you that then you have to choose what you’re doing and what you’re gonna focus on. Lexicographers have always done that when they decide which sources they’re going to read to enter words into their dictionary. But now, because I think we’re so much more aware of different varieties of English that are in use around us all the time, and I think because we also – as professionals, you don’t want to just say, “There’s one kind of English, and it’s proper English, and this is what we’re gonna do.” You really wanna as big a cross-section of the language as possible. But we just don’t have the time or the staffing to do it.
Then you get stuck in this position of like okay, do I enter “covidiot,” or do I revise “colony collapse disorder” with this new scientific information? Do I add a usage note to “Orwellian” to explain what “Orwellian” means? Or do I get back to going through the database to remove any gendered language from words like “spouse” or “husband” or “wife”? There’s always so much that you can do, and sometimes, it really just feels like between being a rock and a hard place. It does matter what you chose, you’re letting something else go, and that’s hard.
Carrie Gillon: I mean, that’s life.
Megan Figueroa: That’s really hard. I’m so sad!
Kory Stamper: Megan looks really sad. I’m sorry.
Carrie Gillon: I’m just like, well, isn’t that life? You make decisions. You can’t do all the things. [Laughter]
Megan Figueroa: That’s just the difference between Carrie and me. It totally is.
Kory Stamper: We can go back to talking about “fuck” if that would make you happy. We can do that.
Megan Figueroa: Yes, how can we placate Megan? [Laughter] The most important question – what is your favorite swear word?
Kory Stamper: Oh, I really do love “fuck.” I mean, and part of why I love it is because it’s so versatile. It’s just – you can get it as just a bare verb that has several different meanings. You can get it as a noun that has several different meanings. It’s used in phrasal verbs to great effect. You can get it as an interjection. You can get it as an adjective.
It’s so broad in terms of its connotative use. If you call someone, as a representative in congress did to AOC, if you call someone a “fucking bitch,” “fuck” in there means something really different from “fucking A, that’s awesome.” Those are different. And it’s got such good phonetics, too. You start with the fricative. You’ve got that really sharp K at the end. It’s a word you can yell. It’s a word you can really draw out. I feel like that’s what you want in a swear word. You want good variety of meaning but also a word that really feels good in the mouth – has good mouthfeel.
Megan Figueroa: Really good mouthfeel, yes. Not like “a damp cake,” which is bad mouthfeel.
Kory Stamper: Not like damp cake, which is disgusting.
Carrie Gillon: I wanna wash my brain.
Megan Figueroa: Disgusting mouthfeel. [Laughter] What was your favorite Word of the Year pick? What would you have chosen instead of “COVID”? Or was “COVID” your word?
Kory Stamper: “COVID” was not my word. You know, I really had a hard time with all of the Words of the Year this year because I just felt like they were so – it was heavy. My personal Word of the Year was “hard pants” because I just felt like it embodied how 2020 went. Before we did the shooting, I have a group of friends that I’m like, “Help! I need to put on makeup and wear nice clothes.” And they’re like, “Okay. Take me to your closet. Show me what you’ve got. This is what you’re gonna wear.” One of them was like, “What are you gonna do for pants? Are you gonna do soft pants or hard pants?” And I was like, “I’m on camera, so I think I have to do hard pants.” And they were like, “Oh god, I’m sorry.”
Megan Figueroa: That’s so funny.
Kory Stamper: “Hard pants” is my Word of the Year for 2020.
Megan Figueroa: I like it.
Kory Stamper: Why not? Yeah.
Megan Figueroa: Exactly. Maybe “WAP” should be Word of the Year.
Kory Stamper: I like that. Let’s do “WAP” instead. “WAP” can be Word of the Year. I’m down for that.
Carrie Gillon: Definitely a song for the year, at least.
Kory Stamper: Oh my gosh, yes.
Carrie Gillon: Well, thank you so, so much for coming on. This was so fun.
Megan Figueroa: Thank you so much.
Carrie Gillon: So fun.
Kory Stamper: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Carrie Gillon: And we always leave our listeners with our one final message which is – don’t be an asshole.
Megan Figueroa: Don’t be an asshole.
Kory Stamper: Definitely don’t be an asshole.
Carrie Gillon: Okay, we would like to thank our four newest patrons for this month. We would like to thank David Higgins.
Megan Figueroa: Yay!
Carrie Gillon: Alex Allen.
Megan Figueroa: Woo!
Carrie Gillon: Jenny Jardine.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah!
Carrie Gillon: And Katie Conner.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, my goodness, thank you everyone so much.
Carrie Gillon: Yes, thank you. Anyone else who wants to join, become a patron, they can go to http://www.patreon.com/vocalfriespod. You get stickers and thank yous and bonus episodes, depending on the level.
Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone Audio, theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @VocalFriesPod. You can email us at email@example.com, and our website is vocalfriespod.com.