This year’s Grammarnoir serial is running in four installments, from Tuesday, February 11, to the thrilling conclusion on March 4, National Grammar Day.
Part 3: The hotsy-totsy lexicographer
At Merriam-Webster, a pair of thugs walked me through the Scriptorium. Big room, coffered ceiling, bright light through Palladian windows, scores of lexicographers surrounded by reference books and notes, delicately picking at their noiseless keyboards. They wore coats and fingerless gloves, heat evidently supplied by Yankee thrift.
One goon stopped at a door and scratched at it with the nail of his little finger, like a flunky at the court of Louis Quatorze. We were granted admittance. It was a big room, with a marble fireplace and an ormolu clock on the mantel. Kory Stamper was seated at a large mahogany desk with stacks of citation slips covering the top.
“We brung this mope who wanted to see you, Miz Stamper,” one of the goons said.
She rose, sashayed over to a red velvet chaise longue, sat, gave me an appraising look, and said, “That’ll do, boys. Leave him here.”
They pushed me down onto a straight chair in front of the chaise and left.
After they closed the door, I said, “What do you need with a couple of yeggs like them?”
“Yegg?” she said. “Seriously? Noun. Safecracker, robber. Origin unknown. First known use: 1903. Who do you think you are, Dashiell Hammet?”
“I didn’t come here to bandy words over usage,” I said.
“Then what did you come here for?”
“It wasn’t to measure out my life with coffee spoons, sister. I’ve got information.”
She took a cigarette from a glass box on a table at her side and lifted it to her lips. As I struck a match to light it, she steadied my hand with hers and looked at me with eyes that gave off a smoldering heat like the hellbox on a Linotype.
“Okeh,” I said. “Let’s try again. Why the thugs? They don’t seem your type.”
“They’re a legacy. After Webster’s Third came out, we needed protection. One night they found Dwight Macdonald out back with an improvised Molotov cocktail. All the old dear had was a bottle of gin, and he had set his necktie on fire, but still, it seemed a good idea to take precautions. We have people who … know people, and they’ve supplied us with protection ever since.”
“Well, they may have the doors and windows covered, but that doesn’t make you safe.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve been infiltrated.”
She uttered a word that I don’t think used to be in the dictionary.
Next: The test