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April 25, 2017

Collingswood dictionary editor explains inclusion of N-word, profanity

' not include it would not get rid of the word's use at all,' says Kory Stamper

Charged with editing the very text used to determine which words are words and which words are not, Kory Stamper knows the power of language — for good or bad.

No matter how hurtful a word can be, however, pretending it doesn't exist won't make it go away, she insists.

Stamper, a Collingswood resident and editor for the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, spoke with WHYY's Terry Gross on "Fresh Air" last week and addressed, among many other things, the inclusion of slurs and profanity.

In the interview, Stamper was asked about an email she got from the parent of a 10-year-old girl who understood why the N-word was included but argued that the dictionary isn't where children should learn offensive slurs. 

Stamper told Gross as a parent herself, she could see where the person was coming from.

"There are lots of words in the world that I don't ever want leveled at my kids," Stamper said. "There are lots of words I wish didn't exist at all."

However, Stamper said although she has kids, she's also a lexicographer, and unfortunately, that means recording the language even when a word is offensive.

"Just because it's in the dictionary, doesn't mean we're promoting its use," Stamper said. "For me to not include it would not get rid of the word's use at all."

Speaking on profanity in general, Stamper said she chuckles when she gets angry emails from parents who say curse words shouldn't be included at all.

"'Now my children will discover what the F-word means,'" Stamper said she'll hear from some parents. "My first thought is, 'Your kid already knows what the F-word means.'"

"If they're looking it up in the dictionary, it's to see if it's entered, not what it means."

Stamper, who's promoting her new book "Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries," touched on a number of other topics in her interview with Gross, including changing the definition of marriage, adding "F-bomb" to the dictionary and more.

You can listen to the full interview below or by clicking here.