A dictionary writer explains why 'god' is the most difficult word to define

Kory Stamper, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster and author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, took 4 months to define the word “god.” Following is a transcript of the video.

Ohhh. The hardest word for me to define, by far, was, ccc

My name is Kory Stamper, and I am a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster. That means I am a writer and editor of dictionaries.

The definition, when I got to it, the definition and the entry were probably about 50, 60 years old. They were not very expansive. So I had to undertake the whole revision.

I mean, defining a word can take —

Sometimes it can take you a couple minutes; sometimes it can take a really long time.

It took me four months.

Pretty much every word that I used in the definition I just agonized over. Can you say “omnipotent” if you’re referring to “god” in this sense? Can you say “compassionate” if you’re referring to “god” in this sense? Is it appropriate to call the neo-pagan uses of “god” “deity”? Should you call them “being”? Should you call them “spirit”?Don’t confuse “essence” and “nature” when you are talking about “god.”

It was a total mind trip.

And the easiest one is the use of “god” as like a verbal particle. For like “Oh my God!” Or “Dear God!” Or that sort of “god.” That was the was the easiest one.

Anything to do with deity, being, spirit, it was — no.

I had rabbis, philosophers, theologians of all stripes look at it. And at the end of it, I think the entry is pretty good.

I’m sure I could have done better in some things. I hope it never comes up for revision again while I’m still a lexicographer. It will take me another 8 or 9 months to try and fix it.

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