“I Argued Over The Meaning Of The Word ‘Natural’ For A Five-Hour Bus Ride:” A TDQ Q&A With Lexicographer Emily Brewster, Part 2

Don't be fore and aft. Bottle of scotch this video that reveals the a la mode behind chitty chitty bang bang.

TDQ: What sort of feedback do you normally get from your grammar rule videos?

Brewster: Mostly it’s about the glasses. Which are actually a disguise I’ve been developing since 4th grade.

TDQ: Who are your influences?

Brewster: Grammatically, my grandmother was my biggest influence. She taught me the difference between lay and lie and to only use than as a conjunction (smarter than I) rather than as a preposition (smarter than me). I don’t subscribe to all the rules she taught me anymore (sorry, Grandma), but she made me think about language critically. My father too was an influence. He’s constantly making up words. When I was a kid he would make up a word—for instance, swiffledode—and we’d ask him what the word meant and he’d say, “Well, it’s a little like pripapitous,” and that would just go on and on.

TDQ: What is the most heated argument you’ve ever had over a word? 

Brewster: My now-husband and I argued over the meaning of the word natural for a five-hour bus ride one time. It hinged on this question: Which is more natural, a loofah or a bicycle? He said bicycle, I said loofah. But these days I think they’re both natural. It all comes down to this: if humans are natural, as in sense 2, which I think we are, then the inclinations a human has are also natural. And wanting to get somewhere more quickly and wanting to have squeaky clean skin are both very natural inclinations. Most of our arguments hinge on what a word means, though. One of the most disturbing side-effects of spending all day thinking about what words mean—and sometimes I spend days on end on a particular word—is that it’s I’ve developed a tendency to second-guess the meanings of words in all kinds of contexts. So he says to me “I thought you said you’d take the trash out,” and I say “I assumed you meant sense 2e so I’ve separated the trash into various categories …”

TDQ: Are we too far gone as a culture to ever speak correctly?

Brewster: I guess that depends on what you mean by “correctly.” If by speaking “correctly” you mean speaking grammatically then I’d say the great majority of us do in fact speak correctly. We follow the usual English subject-verb-object word order where appropriate (“Dog bites man.” not “Bites man dog.”); we conjugate our verbs in the standard ways and use the applicable pronouns (“My name is Emily” not “Our name are Emily.”); we use words that our listeners understand (“I had a collection of smurves when I was a kid.”); we list modifiers in the typical order (“big, round, red balloon” not “red, big, round balloon”). We may not talk the way our English teachers wanted us to write, but we naturally follow the true rules of English grammar. As a number of the videos here discuss, many of the rules we learned in school have rather arbitrary origins. 

TDQ: We want to get the word “twext” into the dictionary (twext-verb, to send the same information via both a text message and a Tweet). Can you make that happen?

Brewster: You’re actually in a much better position to make that happen than I am. An influential publication like TDQ can, by using a new word in a way that its readers understand, actually put a word into circulation. Your readers will encounter the word in your texts, recognize the word’s usefulness, see how cool you are for using it, and will, um, go and do likewise… As a lexicographer, all I can do is pay attention to the new words that are out there proving themselves useful. When a word demonstrates that it’s become part of the language—when we have a significant amount of evidence of the word in use in a variety of publications over an extended period of time—we put it in our dictionaries. Incidentally, we currently have no evidence of twext in our files, but I’ll be on the lookout.

Emily Brewster - Gourmet

Sink your teeth into this explanation of the origins of the word gourmet.

TDQ: Isn’t your career really all downhill from here after this interview runs?

Brewster: I fear that, yes, it is. And I never would have agreed to do this interview if I’d known I’d be making such a sacrifice in doing it. ;)

TDQ:  Are you on Twitter? If yes, why aren’t you following @dailyquarterly?

Brewster: Yes, I’m on Twitter but I don’t follow @dailyquarterly because the aunt’s will strictly forbade it.

TDQ: Better source of news using social media? The Daily Quarterly on Facebook or @dailyquarterly on Twitter?

Brewster: Facebook, I hope.

TDQ: You’re welcome for our time

Brewster: Oh good. I was nervous about how that would go.

Read Part 1 of our TDQ Q&A with Emily here. And to see more videos from Emily and the good folks at Merriam-Webster, go to the Merriam-Webster site.

8 thoughts on ““I Argued Over The Meaning Of The Word ‘Natural’ For A Five-Hour Bus Ride:” A TDQ Q&A With Lexicographer Emily Brewster, Part 2

    • Thank you for your comment. You are correct, she doesn’t say exactly what the feedback is. Perhaps if we’re able to do a follow up Q&A we can get more info out of her.
      You are now informed. Go and do likewise.

  1. Emily, you are awesome! I love your breakdown of the English vernacular. You are the complete package in a woman. You are absolutely stunning, and you are incredibly intelligent. I wish there were more women like you where I live Thank you for all the insight!


  2. Emily, I’m in love. You are gorgeous and subtle and adorable and I love your hair and your glasses and your wit. “..ible” vs. “able” has long mystified me. I’m disappointed that you have a now-husband. Should he become former, please let me know. I’m in line. In the meantime, I hang on your words (figuratively natch).

  3. My favorite Emily Brewster moment is in the video about effect / affect where after describing the conundrum presented by these two words, she inserts a ‘yikes’. (Did I spell conundrum correctly?)

  4. I LOVE both Emily Brewster and Kory Stamper! The way they speak,their delivery,content,intelligence and beauty all come together so nicely every time, in their Ask the Editor videos. Keep up the great work ladies!

  5. Although ‘pripapitous’ is a made up word, if it were real, etymologically it would have a fairly obvious meaning related to ‘priapic’ et al.
    I hope I’m not being pripapitous by pointing this out.

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