Kory Stamper Would Like a Word

Kory Stamper is a lexicographer who worked for nearly two decades at Merriam-Webster dictionary, a world she reveals in the new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. She will be speaking about the book at her upcoming Town Hall event on Sunday, March 25th. In the meantime, Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley spoke with her about her love of language, the lexical merits of emojis, and the wonderfully weird word that is ‘gardyloo.’

Get tickets for Kory’s upcoming event on 3/25.


You’re a lexicographer. For the common person, what is that?
A lexicographer is a writer and editor of dictionaries.

Have you always had an interest in words and writing and reading?
I always loved reading but really in high school I started loving individual words—the way that individual words sounded, or what they meant, or how they could be deployed.

Anytime I told people what I did for a living I was bombarded with questions and assumptions about what the job was and lots of assumptions about what English was that just aren’t true.

I started blogging about language and then decided to write this book as a behind-the-scenes of how dictionaries are made but also to give people some kind of entry point into what English actually is. As a dictionary writer, you often hear from people who think English is dying and they complain that English is falling by the way side, and kids these days and so forth.

Texting and emojis…
Exactly. Soon we’re all going to devolve into gestures and grunts. But the reality is that all of things actually enrich English. English is such a resilient and wild and beautiful language. I wanted to write the book as a love letter to this oft-maligned language that is actually really inventive and beautiful.

What do you hope readers gain from reading your book, then?
The recognition that language is dynamic and dictionaries are dynamic. That neither of those things are, or should be, static. Language changes at a really quick pace and that’s good and right, so dictionaries should also change and that is also right.

I suppose people are often surprised that dictionaries don’t just sit at the library, the giant tome opened up. I’m assuming a lot of people believe that’s still the case. It’s just a thing that existed and it is never edited, reworked, redone. It’s just like the Bible.
The analogy of the Bible is a really good one because it’s not that it doesn’t move or change but for some people the dictionary has this elevated status. It is the arbiter of good English. It tells you exactly where the language is. That’s just not the case. Dictionaries just record the language which is terrifying when people realize what that means. The language is pretty wild. You can’t really stuff it into a box very easily.

Do you get complaints when people think there’s a word that isn’t elevated enough to be placed in the dictionary?
They’ll always find something that they don’t think deserve to be in the language. Dictionary.com just this week announced that they’re trying something new. They’re going to enter some emoji into their dictionary. From a lexical and linguistic standpoint, emoji are used as lexical items. So that makes sense. The response to that has been like Dictionary.com is blowing up the English language. Because people are responding with ‘Those aren’t words.’ ‘That’s not real communication.’ ‘Only kids use those.’ People find just amazing things to complain about whenever a dictionary does anything.

So, personally what is your least favorite word?
In a professional capacity I have no least favorite word.

Off the record.
Lexicographers are people, too. We all have our own likes and dislikes. I cannot stand the word impactful. I understand that is an irrational dislike. I’m completely aware of how irrational that is. I’ve had to revise the entry for impactful, so I’m very aware of how current it is. It’s just a word I don’t like.

What are some of your favorite words?
One word I love because it makes me laugh that there is a word for this and that there’s enough use of it for it to merit entry into the dictionary is the word gardyloo. Its definition is something like “used as a warning cry in Edinburgh when it was customary to throw slop out the upper story window” I love that there’s a word for that.

The specificity!
Yeah! Only in Edinburgh. Only during this time when it was customary. I love that. Etymologists, people who study word histories, think that gardyloo actually comes from French. Which tells you something about not just the time this was used but also that there was a time when Scotland was under French rule. But it’s a ridiculous word! But I love that it’s ridiculous. I love that it has a place in the language.

For more from Kory Stamper come see her on Sunday, March 25th at 6:00pm at Seattle University, presented by Town Hall Seattle. Thanks for listening.

Jonathan Talks to Jonathan

Jonathan Kauffman, a James Beard Award-winning writer, is returning to Seattle. The former restaurant critic at Seattle Weekly, he will be at West Seattle’s Westside School to discuss his new book, Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat on Tuesday, February 27th at 7:30 pm.

Jonathan recently sat down with Jonathan Shipley, Town Hall’s Marketing Manager, to discuss lentil casseroles, vegetarian cults, and the horror of carob.

JS: You lived in Seattle and now live in San Francisco. What’s different between each city’s food cultures?

JK: They’re really similar. There’s more money in San Francisco and so there are more high-end restaurants. The Chinese population is greater here, so there are better and more Chinese restaurants in San Francisco. Seattle’s got better seafood and, since it’s not as expensive as San Francisco, there’s more willingness to experiment in Seattle. They can try new things.

JS: What do you miss about Seattle?

JK: My family and my friends.

JS: What don’t you miss about Seattle?

JK: I like sunlight. I like that I don’t have to take Vitamin D supplements anymore.

JS: What inspired this new book of yours?

JK: I was having a meal in Seattle at The Sunlight Café on Roosevelt. I was being served steamed vegetable with tahini dressing, and whole wheat pastries, and veggie burgers and I was hit with a sudden sense of nostalgia. I grew up in the middle of Indiana. How did I grow up eating this food? How did lentil casseroles and stir fried vegetables with tofu and South African stews get there?

JS: What hippie food is your favorite?

JK: My reset meal is a big wok full of stir fried vegetables and tofu over brown rice.

JS: What hippie food do you detest?

JK: Carob is horrifying.

JS: Who was the most interesting interview subject in your book?

JK: Former members of the Source Family. They were members of a vegetarian cult in the 1960s and 70s under Father Yod. They dressed in white, lived in a mansion, were in a rock band (Ya Ho Wha 13), and earned their money off an organic vegetarian restaurant in Los Angeles. They are pretty lovely people and are very positive about their time.

JS: What fact did you uncover in the book that most delights you?

JK: Tempeh [an Indonesian dish made by deep-frying fermented soybeans] was introduced by The Farm, at one time the biggest commune in America. The Farm, still in operation in Tennessee, have made three lasting contributions to the world: tempeh, home births, and radiation detection. I totally love them.

Whether you’re into granola or sprouts, co-ops or quinoa, Town Hall looks forward to hosting Kauffman at the Westside School. Join us!

A Thank You from Wier

Dear Friends,

What a season, and what a final week—thank you to everyone who came out for Groundbreak! This moment has been a long time coming, and it meant more than I can say to celebrate it surrounded by the community who—through 18 years of dialogue and debate, art and ideas—has made Town Hall into the nationally unique institution it has become.

In the last few months the Town Hall community has stepped up to support this place in unprecedented ways. In June alone, you dug deep to raise more than $215,000 to support our historic renovation. Construction begins next month (expect a lot of hard hat pictures and progress updates) and we’ll re-open in fall 2018 for the 2018-19 season.

But so much more than the impending renovation has this place buzzing. While our home is closed, Town Hall is turning itself “Inside/Out”; that means that all the programs you’ve come to expect from Town Hall will come to life in venues scattered in neighborhoods across Seattle. But beyond the “where” of our programs, we’re transforming the “how.”

We often say Town Hall’s calendar is a reflection of this city, an attempt to tell its story. During Inside/Out, we’ll involve our audience more directly in creating that calendar, to become a more complete mirror and tell a richer story. Many events will be programmed in consultation with Neighborhood Steering Committees; some will be co-created by audience members, in collaboration with Artists and Scholars in Community. If we do this right, Inside/Out will create lasting mechanisms to bring grassroots ideas and community-sourced solutions into broad public consideration—and we’ll welcome a whole new slate of exciting voices back to our renovated home. We’ll share more about Inside/Out over the coming months, and I hope you will join us for this transformative year.

And we’ll reach you in another new venue this year—your phone or laptop. Many of you are already accustomed to our livestreams (subscribe to our YouTube channel to know every time one is scheduled) and have enjoyed our Media Library programming; now we’re expanding our digital presence into podcasting. “Feeds” of our Civics, Science, and Arts and Culture programs will directly offer almost every Town Hall-produced program. And in August, we’ll launch a fourth podcast hosted by Steve Scher, longtime host of KUOW’s Weekday, and Town Hall’s Digital Producer Jini Palmer. Learn more and subscribe here. We’ll be posting new podcasts of Town Hall programs all summer long.

Stay tuned for a lot more, but until then: thank youThank you for an incredible season, thank you for your belief in this place, thank you for bringing Town Hall to life.


Wier Harman
Executive Director

Take Civic Action for Town Hall

Since 1991, the Building for the Arts grants program has helped direct state funds to strong nonprofit arts capital projects all across Washington. While the legislature concluded its operating budget last week, they need to return to Olympia to finish the job of funding a statewide capital budget.

In our campaign to raise money for our building renovation, Town Hall was ranked first out of all projects applying for BFA support and received the highest grant recommendation ($1.52 million). It would be a devastating loss to our project (as well as the others around the region) if the capital budget is passed without Building for the Arts funds included.

Please contact your Washington State legislators—and cc the capital budget writers (Sen. Jim Honeyford and Sen. David Frockt on any communication to Senators and Rep. Steve Tharinger and Rep. Richard DeBolt on any House communications)—and ask them to support full funding for Building for the Arts. 

See below for an example letter:

Dear [Your Representative or Senator]:

I’m writing today to urge you to support full funding for Town Hall Seattle and the Building for the Arts program in the 2017-19 capital budget. Full support for Town Hall was included in the Governor’s, House, and Senate capital budgets during the regular session, and I encourage you to advocate for Town Hall and the other important projects across the state during this special session, both within your caucus and with the capital budget writers.

Town Hall is important to me because [include why Town Hall matters to you]. Building for the Arts funding is critical to Town Hall’s necessary renovation and will preserve and strengthen this community resource for generations to come. Support for Town Hall is also support for me and your other constituents, for the 110,000 Washington residents who walk through Town Hall’s doors each year, and for the 90 diverse nonprofits who rely on Town Hall’s affordable stages and support.

The Building for the Arts program has been successfully leveraging the arts as an economic catalyst since 1991. The program is extremely competitive, the projects are thoroughly vetted, and—beyond securing access to arts & culture experiences across Washington state—they make financial sense. The projects create jobs, inspire economic development, and the tax generating benefits outweigh the short and long-term costs.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

[Your Name]
[Your Physical Address]

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