Location: Springfield, MA
Peter Sokolowski has always been a voracious reader. In elementary school, he loved longer books and was, he says, “a reading group of one.” By age eleven, he had read his way through the Sherlock Holmes and Three Musketeers series. He eschewed the usual fare for readers his age. “I loved the long words and the longer sentences,” he says, recalling his thrill at encountering the word valetudinarianand looking it up. (For those who have not yet encountered it or bothered to look it up if they did come across it, valetudinarianrefers to hospital-like buildings built throughout the Roman Empire.)
Peter’s parents were both public school math teachers who encouraged his accelerated reading and the love of language it engendered. “There was an awareness of language that came from reading,” Peter says. He was attracted to the complexity of the vocabulary because he saw it as part of a puzzle. “I was always going to the dictionary to find the answer,” he says. His love of language also extended to French, which he credits to particularly good French teachers, all native speakers, that his school system north of Boston provided him.
In high school, his love of language was surpassed by his love of music. “I was obsessed with trumpet and jazz,” Peter says. But by the time he got to college, he was ready to focus on French. He attended the University of Massachusetts and also studied at the University of Paris, receiving a BA in French from UMass and the Diplôme d’Études Universitaires Générales from his Paris studies. His intent was to be a French professor, and he taught French at UMass when he returned to the U.S. and began his graduate work on the sixteenth century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne.
And then Merriam-Webster reached out to Peter and invited him to write a French dictionary. It was supposed to take two years, and was a project that Peter found “intrinsically interesting.” He figured he would delay his PhD for two years to pursue this unique opportunity, and then return to his academic and teaching track. Peter now knows that dictionaries often take much longer than anticipated to write, and the two years turned into six. It was a fascinating process, because the writing of Merriam-Webster’s first French dictionary coincided with the nascence of electronic resources. “There was no data base,” Peter says. “So we had to create one.”
Peter and his team scoured the text of online newspapers from Canada, France, Switzerland, Belgium, and francophone Africa to create a database of current, active French vocabulary. If a word showed up frequently, even if it was one Peter did not know, it was included in the database. For instance, Peter learned that that the French word for email was courriel, an abbreviation for courrier electronique, because of how often it showed up in French newspapers.
The Merriam-Webster French-English Dictionary was published in 2000 and continues to be the best-selling French reference book in North America. “I am very proud of it,” Peter says, noting that it is a clean, correct, and useful reference book and, the ultimate sign of its success, “people continue to buy it.” Writing the dictionary also crystallized for him that the academic writing he had been doing in pursuit of his Masters was far less satisfying. “I was frustrated with putting intense research into an article,” he says, “and only eight people read it.” The dictionary felt like a much more practical application of what he had learned.
When Merriam-Webster asked if Peter wanted to stick around, it was an easy decision. “I like feeling useful,” he says. The French dictionary was an exciting endeavor in that he had to start from scratch, but he also enjoyed collaborating with the other editors at Merriam-Webster to work on the 11thedition of the Collegiate Dictionary, which updates and builds off of the 10thedition. It is a huge project, serving as a synchronic measure of acceptance for what constitutes current, active vocabulary of American English. “It is a snapshot of this moment,” Peter says, “and if an adult is likely to encounter a given word, then we enter it.” He and the rest of the team serve as language detectives (rather than the judge and jury they have sometimes been accused of being) to find words that are used with a certain degree of frequency. “We err on the side of being conservative,” Peter says, “because we want to make sure the words have staying power.” Blogand email were quickly added, but the jury is still out on whether vlogwill have staying power. Often, major publications move words along. “Once chillaxappeared in The New York Times,” Peter says, “it was accepted.”
Peter also added public speaking to his role when he was working on the 11thedition of the Collegiate Dictionary. It turned out that his word knowledge and passion for the integrity of the dictionary-making process made serving as an ambassador for Merriam-Webster a perfect fit. As a trained editor and linguist, Peter is uniquely qualified to talk about the etymology of words and the way they end up in a dictionary. “I began telling our story,” Peter says, sharing insights on how dictionary decisions are made in radio and television interviews and at conferences, universities and book store events. He now proudly holds the title as the world’s first and only dictionary ambassador. He travels the world focusing on outreach to, as he puts it, “help people understand and have faith in what we do.” He stands behind Merriam-Webster’s approach and enjoys sharing it in myriad venues. “We observe the language, we represent it as best we can, and then share it widely,” he says.
One of Peter’s favorite talks to give in foreign countries is Mind Your Manners: Idioms, Habits and Usage. “They think we are talking about American idioms,” Peter says, “but really I am teaching them about the dictionary in a fun way.” He helped to write Merriam-Webster’s ESL Dictionary for non-native speakers. But it is his outreach, and his role as the first Editor at Large that has him feeling grateful every day to love his job as much as he does. He is involved with spelling bees all over the world, consults with the North American Scrabble Players Association on their dictionary and their Scrabble championships (which is how I met him) and oversees the Merriam-Webster web content, including the popular Word of the Day feature.
Passion is a great thing. It allows you to feel strongly and delve deeply into issues and causes. When you get to combine passion with a skillset and knowledge base, and then you get to package all of that together into what you do in your job and build a career that feels like the perfect embodiment of everything you have studied and care about, you are one lucky guy. Peter says he is often told that it is obvious he loves his job, and that he does. But luck only gets you so far. Peter made good decisions along the way, nurturing and pursuing his passion. And the job as it exists, the first ever Dictionary Ambassador, is one he created and then embodied. He is lucky that he loves it, but he definitely deserves some of the credit for the fact that he gets to do what he loves.
I have heard that college graduates today will change not just jobs but careers multiple times. A skillset that is specific to a narrowly defined job may not take them very far because that job could become obsolete or require an entirely new skillset in just a few short years. But when you let passion be your guide, when you stay true to the things you love and carve out jobs and careers that may not yet exist but fit a need and allow you to share your passion and skills, you get to say, as Peter does, “I am having a lot of fun.”