“You make them up? I will never look up a word in the dictionary again!” – In case you thought the dictionary came from God, it was not God, it was an unemployed first year linguist …And how the word F*ck got into Merriam-Webster…

From an interview with Lila Gleitman (professor of psychology and linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania; an internationally renowned expert on language acquisition and developmental psycholinguistics, focusing on children’s learning of their first language):


Lila Gleitman: “And you won’t work with me. You will work with –” And his face was kind of shining.

“You will work with Zellig Harris.” All of Penn and much of the linguistic world was devoted to Zellig Harris for a very good reason.

Susan Goldin-Meadow: So you came in as a linguistic student in Zellig Harris’ lab.

Lila Gleitman: Yes.

Susan Goldin-Meadow: And the first thing he did was tell you you had to go find a job.

Lila Gleitman: The first thing he said is that he forgot to apply for the scholarships

…so I go get a job.

Susan Goldin-Meadow: All right. So tell us a little bit —

Lila Gleitman: So I had to get a job for a year, yeah.

Susan Goldin-Meadow: And tell us a little bit about this job because this job is pretty interesting.

Lila Gleitman: Well, I remember I had connections with psychology. So I got a job at Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute. There was a psychiatrist, and this psychiatrist was something of a — I don’t know what to call him. But he said, oh yeah, I’m going to hire you as a structural linguist. I had been in linguistics for, what, six weeks or three weeks or something like that. You know, you put on the door the name of the person and underneath it was Structural — Lila Galanter, Structural Linguist. So he hired me for his own purposes and not too much happened. But something did happen.

Susan Goldin-Meadow: Something did happen. So tell us about that.

Lila Gleitman: He had gotten the contract to write the psychological entries for the next edition of Webster’s Dictionary, and that was quite interesting. So he decided that I should do it, and it was wonderful. You get 100 cards. I mean, I think they have troops of monkeys that type 100 cards on which your mystery word has occurred somewhere. So you have a little paragraph or text and you get about 100 of them. You’re supposed to riffle through those and figure out a paraphrase presumably that will be the dictionary entry for that word. And a lot of funny things happened there of which there was another person working as a secretary there.

A woman. I loved this story. She came and she said, “What are you doing with those cards all the time?” I could imagine how proud I was. I said, “I am writing the definitions for Webster’s Dictionary.” And she said, “How do you do that?” So I thought about it for a second and said,

“Well, I make them up.” She said, “You?” And then she said – I always tell this to my undergraduates – “You make them up? I will never look up a word in the dictionary again.” It was so wonderful because people think the dictionary came from God. It wasn’t God. It’s an unemployed first year linguistics student somewhere.

Susan Goldin-Meadow: All right. So tell us about that famous word that you got into the dictionary.

Lila Gleitman: Oh yeah. So yes. So this was also wonderful because, believe it or not, among the psychological words was the word “fuck.”

Actually it was quite interesting. We won’t talk about that, but those of you who thought about symmetrical predicates can realize that “fuck” is quite an interesting word. Words like “marry” or “equal” or so forth, it behaves in very interesting ways. So that was my first approach to that. But the interesting thing I have taken it as my chief accomplishment in life, that I’m the gal who put the word “fuck” in the dictionary.

Susan Goldin-Meadow: That may not be your most.

Lila Gleitman: Not bad.

Susan Goldin-Meadow: We’ll vote at the end of the interview to see. …


(Find the full interview here.)