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More than 200 contestants from around the world are gathering in Washington this week for the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. We talk with Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large about the history of spelling bees, what it’s like to be a spelling bee pronouncer, and why words like “selfie” and “hashtag” will soon show up in one of the world’s best known dictionaries.
- Peter Sokolowski Lexicographer and editor-at-large, Merriam-Webster.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the hour, the roots of political panic in American culture, from colonial-era witch hunts to post-911 Islamaphobia. But first, the 89th Scripps National Spelling Bee. Every year, hundreds of alarmingly learned middle-schoolers converge in a hotel at National Harbor, where they spell out words many adults couldn't even define, like lagaria or sparkaenzanthosis. All in hope of becoming the next champion of the national spelling bee.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOur guest this hour is the editor-at-large of the contest's official dictionary, Merriam-Webster. He joins me to discuss the Bee and some of the latest editions to the more than century old dictionary. Peter Sokolowski is editor-at large of Merriam-Webster in studio. It's been awhile, Peter, but good to see you again.
MR. PETER SOKOLOWSKIIt's great to be here. Thank you.
NNAMDIFirst off, what does it mean to be editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster? You've been described as, you know -- you joined this company in 1994. You have been described as having essentially taken the SAT multiple times weekly for 18 years or in this case, for 20 years.
SOKOLOWSKIYou know, that's true. Our president, John Moore, says that writing dictionary definitions as a job is like taking the SAT. It's that kind of concentration that you need, which is why we work in a silent office. It's a quiet workplace. Even though there's 30 or 40 people writing definitions, it's very quiet, it's very discreet. It used to be that you couldn't even speak out loud. Now, it's a little bit more relaxed. But it -- it's a great place to go and concentrate if you love language and really think about how people use words and how words come into the language. But I love it also to look at the history of language.
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, it's so quiet that, in the old days before there was email, you used to communicate using three-by-five...
SOKOLOWSKIYeah, the little, I think I might have one on me. The little pink notes that we -- I don't have one on me. No. But I use them to...
NNAMDIWell, he certainly looked in his wallet for it.
SOKOLOWSKIYeah. I look them -- I use them as my notepaper. Yes, we would write -- you write the initials of the editor you would like to communicate with -- this is just before email took over -- and you would send a little note. And in fact I remember one anecdote. I got a note from a colleague who is today the associate pronouncer of the National Spelling Bee. So he and I reunite every year at the Spelling Bee. And he once sent me a note to give me a review of a new candy bar in the vending machine.
SOKOLOWSKIBut it was the kind of thing you'd write to someone, would you like to have lunch tomorrow or that kind of thing. But email obviously has changed all of that.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for us, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Our guest is Peter Sokolowski. He is editor-at-large of Merriam-Webster. 800-433-8850. Why do you think spelling bees remain so popular hundreds of years since the first spelling competition? You can also send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. You are also a long-time spelling bee pronouncer.
NNAMDICan you tell us what's that like? What do you have to keep in mind when it's your job to tell which contestants which words they are to spell and how you started out in Seoul, South Korea in 2008?
SOKOLOWSKII know, I started out in South Korea. Basically, the Scripps Spelling Bee licensed their first bee to a non-home-language country. That is to say, a country where English is not spoken in the home, because Canada, New Zealand, other countries do participate. And the Korean interest in learning English is profound and deep. And an English -- a private English academy and publisher sponsors the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Korea. But they wanted someone from the official dictionary to come and be the pronouncer. So that was my very first spelling bee.
NNAMDIAnd he was so self-confident. How difficult can that be to pronounce words?
SOKOLOWSKIHow hard could that be? And boy did I learn, because I've never had more attention paid to me. Certainly, as you know, in Asia there are lots of cameras on you whenever you're speaking. And it was a room with a couple thousand people. And also there's, you know, there was intense interest and pride in the achievement of these young people -- these young spellers. So I do recall that I passed out asleep in the car going home after the spelling bee, the first national bee of Seoul, South Korea. But since then I've done bees in India and in Brazil and in Mexico and in New York.
SOKOLOWSKIAnd in Washington D.C. last fall, we did the centennial Congressional Spelling Bee. Ten members of Congress, four Senators, against the members of the National Press Corps, like Howard Fineman, and Karen Tumulty and Kate Nocera.
NNAMDIAnd who won?
SOKOLOWSKIWell, Senator Tim Kaine.
SOKOLOWSKIYeah, of Virginia. He's brilliant and he's a great speller. And also I have to say that the Press Corp won as a team, but Senator Kaine won as an individual.
NNAMDIWhile you are not an official pronouncer at this year's events, you've been following the competition. What are some of the more impressive words that you've watched contestants master?
SOKOLOWSKIWell, I mean...
NNAMDIAnd what words have tripped up some of the young students so far?
SOKOLOWSKIThere, yeah, there's always a problem with the schwa. And if you've never heard of the schwa, this is the symbol that is spelled like an upside down "E" that you see in dictionary pronunciation guides.
SOKOLOWSKIThe schwa. And the schwa stands for the first and last sound of the word, America. It's the "A" sound. It's the most common vowel sound in English. It's the unstressed vowel sound in English. And the fact is, that sound can be spelled with an "A" or an "E" or an "I" or an "O" or a "U" or a "Y" or with no letter at all. Like the word rhythm, which clearly has that sound in it, but there's no vowel in its second syllable. So that tends to be the single, biggest trap for all spellers. And so you see, like, for example, there are foreign words that are borrowed into English, like luftmensch was spelled incorrectly yesterday.
SOKOLOWSKIAnd mensch, in German, that "CH" sound, has an "S" in it. And the speller spelled it without the "S," so that was his problem. But you -- and then ranunculus, the word ranunculus, the first syllable is spelled with an "A" and the speller gave a "U." Again, the schwa was the problem. He couldn't tell whether it was an "A" or a "U" or it could have been an "E" for that matter. So anyway, it tends to be a trap for the schwa at this high, high level, because there's very little real guessing. They do know the etymologies. They know if the words come from Latin or French. Those are good clues.
NNAMDIA lot of other countries have other competitions of where the spelling bee tends to be mainly an American endeavor. Certainly it's -- whether or not it's in America or in South Korea, it's endeavor involving the English language. What is it about this language that can make spelling so challenging?
SOKOLOWSKIRight. It's absolutely an English phenomenon. Partly it's because, I don't need to tell you, English orthography is not phonetic. It's not phonetically regular. So there are languages with phonetic alphabets, like the Korean language, like Spanish, which is much more regular than English. But the other thing is that Spanish, for example, is essentially bad Latin. The entire language is derived from one source. With English, we have many sources. You have the old Scandinavian roots. You have the Latin roots, after the Norman Conquest.
SOKOLOWSKIAnd so you have this mix, this mongrel of a language, and you get the pronunciation and spelling as the record of wherever these words come from. We say the word Champaign, for example, with a "SH" sound, even though it's spelled with a "CH," because that's the way it's done in French. So we borrow words. We say we borrow words, but it's not really a good way of describing it, because we never give them back.
NNAMDIIs English really the most difficult language to learn?
SOKOLOWSKIThat's a good question. It's hard to be really objective about that. English is a language that most people want to learn. It is the most studied language in the world. It is extremely difficult to pronounce American English, in particular, partly because of that schwa sound, partly because of the diphthongs that we make, the way we swim in our vowels. We can sort of, you know, make these sounds that are difficult. Other languages, like French, are much more normalized and regular. So I would say, bless you, I would say phonetically, English is among the more difficult.
SOKOLOWSKIBut we're not a tonal language like the Asian language is. So all I can say is English is a lifetime in the learning. And that goes for a native speaker as well.
NNAMDIOur guest is Peter Sokolowski. He is editor-at-large of Merriam-Webster. And we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email email@example.com. Before I go to the phones, spelling bees have been around for a while. In fact, even by the early 1900s, you note that the New York Times was referring to the spelling bee as old fashioned. If it was old fashioned then...
NNAMDI...why do you think we're still doing it today?
SOKOLOWSKIIt seems like it's had several periods of great prominence in American culture. One of them, for sure, was the period after the Civil War. Even Mark Twain writes about spelling bees, spelling competitions. And there was a great -- there was a sort of an -- a phase, kind of a fad in the 1870s of spelling bees. So in the 1913 New York Times quote that called them old fashioned, was probably because the grandparents of that editor at the New York Times were probably people who participated in those spelling bees. There was a fad and a craze of them in the late 1800s.
SOKOLOWSKIBut you know what? Benjamin Franklin recommended them as an exercise in the classroom, in order to teach good spelling.
NNAMDIFor that matter, why is the spelling bee called the spelling bee?
SOKOLOWSKIAh, now there's an interesting point, because the bee, itself, the word bee doesn't actually refer to the insect, even though most people think it does. We're pretty sure that it actually comes from the same root as the boon in English. Boon meaning something that's helpful. And so it comes from the, you know, you can use it as a husking bee or an apple bee or logging bee.
SOKOLOWSKIAnd it comes from the old English word bane, which means prayer or group activity. Something you do together. And so we believe that, when you talk about a group activity, like a husking bee, where you get together and husk corn, it's a spelling bee or a knitting bee or, you know, that kind of thing, it's a group activity.
NNAMDIIt started out as a boon and it's contest in which I wouldn't have a prayer.
NNAMDIHere's Mohammad in Herndon, Va. Mohammad, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MOHAMMADHi. I had the question for the guest here. I have a daughter. Her name is Ravia. She's seven years old. And I want her to go in to spelling bee competition. So I was thinking what kind of advice that the guest would have for me.
NNAMDIAdvice for Mohammad for his seven-year-old daughter.
SOKOLOWSKISure. I mean advice for a bee. The first think is there is a website called myspellit.com, myspellit.com, which has a couple of lists to start with. And this is what's given to the contestants at the National Spelling Bee. And then ask your teacher, ask your administrators to connect with Scripps and get the lists and participate. It may not be your school, but certainly your district or your county will have a spelling bee at some point during the school year. And the winner of the regional and the school bees go, you know, it goes up the chain to make the nationals.
SOKOLOWSKIThe thing to study is absolutely the etymologies. To know words of Greek and Latin origin. There's a book that Merriam-Webster publishes called "The Vocabulary Builder." It's only a $6.00 paperback book, but let me tell you, it's probably the best place to start. Because it will teach the roots, the Greek and Latin roots of so many English words that end up being difficult to spell and are part of the bee.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Mohammed. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. For those of us who are not in a spelling bee, new technology has made spelling a lot easier. In the age of spell-check, in the age of AutoCorrect, do you think the ability to spell still matters?
SOKOLOWSKIYou know, I think it does. And that's a really good question. First of all, the ability to write still matters, because more of our communication is written today than ever before. Many office conversations, many meetings, of course, are taking place via email today. And even texting has become, in many cases, an important part of your professional life. And the fact is, we all have to admit, that we are judged by our use of language -- by the way we sound, by the way we spell.
SOKOLOWSKIThere's a funny anecdote that Match.com, the dating website, did a survey of. What were the most important features of a prospective date among the men and the women? Both men and women said good teeth were the first most important attribute. And both of them said that a good vocabulary was the second most important attribute. And so good use of language and actually what they said was not vocabulary, they said good grammar. But when people talk about grammar, they often mean spelling.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you think new technology, like AutoCorrect or spell-check has made spelling any less relevant? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Merriam-Webster just added more than 150 new words to its collegiate dictionary including dubstep, tarducken (sp?) and crowdfunding. How do you go about accepting new words into Merriam Webster's Dictionary? What's that process like?
SOKOLOWSKIThe -- it's a process -- I'm really glad you used that word. It's a process. It’s not just a single sort of stunt. We have to keep the dictionary as current as possible, as active as possible. The dictionary, the collegiate dictionary is the active current vocabulary of American English and the only constant about language is changed. So the fact is we have to watch. And what we do is, this process amounts to a census of the language.
SOKOLOWSKIWe take a census on a daily basis. We read as much as we can novels, newspapers, books, soup can labels, menus, billboards. And we take that evidence and with its full bibliography, who said it or who wrote it and where and when, and that's added to our database. And then at the end of a year or the end of a few years we take a look at all of those new words and assess, are they used by many, many people? Are they used in many publications? Are they likely to be encountered by a reader?
SOKOLOWSKIAnd so we determine that this year, for example, some important words. There are some words from pop culture that you mentioned, but also words like fracking that are right out of the news. Word like...
NNAMDIWhich is controversial because of original meaning there are those who argue...
NNAMDI...that there should be no K in it.
NNAMDIAnd that the people who put K in it had the deliberate intention of reminding people of a certain word that we can't use on the air here. What about that?
SOKOLOWSKIRight. Another word that begins with F. And as it turns out, if you look into the history of this word -- and this is what's exciting about, you know, being a lexicographer -- the first use of the word was spelled with a K and it was in fact in a gas industry publication. So it was their own word and their own spelling until they decided it wasn't.
NNAMDIOh, good. I didn't know that part of the story.
NNAMDISometimes an established word can take on a new meaning. For example, Merriam Webster just added a second entry for the word whisperer. How did you find that word was being used and can you tell us why you decided the new usage should be added to the dictionary?
SOKOLOWSKIRight. The whisperer, as in the horse whisperer, you know. And so it's one of those things where it's clearly a word that meant one that whispers before that in a very general way. But to now have this new meaning of, you know, being able to encourage or gently train and animal by speaking softly and, in some measure, communicating with the animal, this is something that since the publication of the book and then the movie "The Horse Whisperer" has been used all over.
SOKOLOWSKIAnd so you'll see people referred to as baby whisperers or as dog whisperers or as cat whisperers. And as soon as we saw that word being used in all these different contexts but with the same meaning, we were sure that this was a word that belongs in the dictionary.
NNAMDIOn to Paul in Arlington, Va. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULHi. I had a quick comment and question. The comment is, for the information of the listeners, I think it might be good if you were to briefly explain the difference between the Merriam Webster dictionaries on the one hand and all the phony Webster dictionaries there are out there on the other. And the question is, when is the Webster's Fourth New International expected to come out?
SOKOLOWSKIWow. Okay. They're real big questions. Well, you're referring to the unabridged dictionary, the big one. It weights almost 14 pounds and it is often called Webster's Third. And it's the unabridged dictionary published by Merriam Webster that was last updated in 2002. That is the official word list of the National Spelling Bee, by the way. Now, Paul, this book has been updated in an ongoing way online at MerriamWebsterUnabridged.com. So the word list is much bigger already and many changes have been made.
SOKOLOWSKIAt the moment we're making those changes online only because it will take so long to update this book. And to be honest, I can't even promise if there will be something called Webster's Fourth. It may be forever Webster's Unabridged online that will be a continuous process of revision. And it's true that the name Webster refers to dictionaries and is now in the public domain.
SOKOLOWSKISo Noah Webster wrote the great American dictionary. He changed the spelling of American English. He's the reason we spell differently from the British tradition, without question, the greatest spelling reformer in the history of the language. And then the printers were the Merriam Brothers, the Merriam Company in Springfield, Mass. who continued publication after Webster's death. And the fact is, we call our company Merriam Webster now to distinguish ourselves from the generic use of the name Webster.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Paul. Several of Merriam Webster's new words this year relate to technology including selfie, hashtag and big data. How do you think the digital age has affected the growth and evolution of the English language?
SOKOLOWSKIWell, the first thing is that communication is faster, which means these words enter the language faster. So a word like crowdfunding was only coined in 2006 and a word like paywall in 2004. So these are words that are part of the way, not only that we live our lives but the way that we make our living. And so these are business terms that we can't do without. They have to be in the dictionary. So it's the speed of communication and the way that it becomes so prevalent so quickly.
SOKOLOWSKIYou know, it's important to remember in terms of the technology and language, that there was a word in our first collegiate dictionary 1898 that was a technology word that was a neologism that was a new word from a technology that most people didn't have. The technology I'm talking about was the telephone and the word I'm talking about was hello. People don't realize that that word is a very young word in English and it was invented for communication by telephone. So the fact is there's a long tradition of adding words to -- adding words in the dictionary as a consequence of new technology.
NNAMDIWe never said hello before the telephone?
SOKOLOWSKII know. Well, greetings were different. You look in Shakespeare and there's haloo and holo but the greetings were different mostly because you knew who you were talking to. So you would say sir or lady.
NNAMDIHello, Charles. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHARLESGood morning. I'm wondering if your guest knows a word coined by George Bernard Shaw who hated the English language and left a certain amount of his estate for its reform?
CHARLESThe word is spelled G-H-O-T-I.
SOKOLOWSKIYes, you're referring to the word fish I think.
CHARLESYes, I am.
NNAMDIYeah, have to remember that.
SOKOLOWSKIAnd Shaw was taking with the letters G-H-O-T-I different elements of different English words that could correspond to the phonetics of the word fish. Because the G-H like tough, the O a schwa, as we mentioned before, a sound that can be spelled with many vowels and the T-I like fiction. So you could spell the word fish out of that. And that's very clever. Yeah, spelling reform has been on the minds of many people over the ages. Benjamin Franklin advocated spelling reform. Noah Webster himself of course did as well.
SOKOLOWSKIThe fact is, what's missing, if we respell the words phonetically, if we respell the entire language phonetically we would lose the biography of each word. Right now, for example, my last name is Sokolowski. You may know nothing about me but you know where my grandfather was born. And so that to me is worth keeping. That information, it's the ancient history of each word that's embedded in the spelling. And I do believe that's important. It is idiosyncratic, it is not phonetic and it's difficult to learn but that's English.
NNAMDIOn to Raymond in Clarkesville, Md. Raymond, you're on the air. Go ahead, please
RAYMONDI'd like to know why we now say went missing instead of disappeared?
SOKOLOWSKIRight. That's sort of passive way, went missing...
NNAMDIWell, increasingly people can find the definition of new terms and slang before they're added to the dictionary with a simple Google search.
SOKOLOWSKIAbsolutely. Or something like the Urban dictionary which is a crowd sourced dictionary. You know, I can't tell you for certain when that convention switched, although went missing does sound like a journalistic convention. And oftentimes journalists usually go for the shorter option. In this case they may have gone for an option that sounds neutral. In other words, it doesn't express volition. It wasn't necessarily the wish of the person to be missing but we don't know.
NNAMDIMerriamWebster.com gets more than 20 million unique visitors from around the globe each month. How do you think the internet has ultimately changed the role of a dictionary?
SOKOLOWSKIWell, this is a great question. First of all, there's no question that people use the dictionary more frequently than ever, with 100 million pages a month at the website and a similar number for our apps. Because now you can carry a dictionary in your pocket on a Smart phone. And the app is free too by the way. And so you can use the dictionary anywhere.
SOKOLOWSKIYou know, one thing we can now do is know which words are being looked up. And so the data comes back to me and I can tell you that, for example, last week the most looked up term was codetta because of the new -- from Thailand. And so we know which words are looked up on a given day, a given week. And that tells a piece of our cultural story each week as we look at those words.
NNAMDIFinally here's Rachel in Silver Spring, Md. Rachel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RACHELThank you very much for taking my call. You asked the question of whether technology is making search -- word checkers are making spelling irrelevant. And I've been reading since I was about four years old. My teachers have told me I'm, you know, incredibly literate. I write beautifully, but I have never been able to spell. Never passed a spelling test in my life. And if it weren't for Spell Check, despite my Masters Degree, I would probably be unemployable. I type, like, 75 words a minute with Spell Check. Without Spell Check I could probably type about 6 words a minute. But...
RACHEL...I think Spell Check is a wonderful, wonderful thing for those of us who have never been able to spell.
SOKOLOWSKIAbsolutely. Good for you. That's great.
NNAMDIAnd thank you very much. Our producer Stephannie Stokes says, With the combination of AutoCorrect and a career in radio, I have become nearly incapable of spelling words correctly." I can tell you she does pretty well at it and today is Stephannie Stokes' last day with us. She is expanding her career in radio and hopefully in spelling also, stoking the fires of broadcasting. We just want to wish her the best of luck and thanks for her time with us. And thanks to you, Peter Sokolowski, for spending your time with us.
SOKOLOWSKIThank you so much. This was great.
NNAMDIPeter Sokolowski is editor at large at Merriam Webster. Later in the broadcast, the roots of political panic in American culture. That's when we come back, from colonial era witch hunts to post 9/11 Islamiphobia. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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