A Woman of Many Words

VU’s new English professor Salena Sampson talks life and letters


Assistant Professor Salena Sampson leafs through a volume of the Oxford English Dictionary at Christopher Center Library Services in March.

Assistant Professor Salena Sampson leafs through a volume of the Oxford English Dictionary at Christopher Center Library Services in March. 


For a great many of us, no task sounds more boring than reading the dictionary. But for a linguist, well that’s an entirely different story. Just ask Assistant Professor Salena Sampson, the latest recruit to Valparaiso University’s English Department. Although she prefers the online version, Sampson, who earned her PhD in linguistics from The Ohio State University, likes to take the occasional stroll from her office in Huegli Hall to the Christopher Center and get her hands on an actual bound hard copy of her favorite lexicon, the Oxford English Dictionary.

“I think there is something beautiful about trying to record how people use words,” Sampson said last month at a quiet corner table in the library’s reference section, volume 18 of the dictionary open in front of her.

Thankfully, she took a break to let us in on what it is that makes those words so thrilling.


Q: So, do you ever find yourself reading the Oxford English Dictionary just for fun?

A: Oh absolutely. [Laughs]


Q: What about it is so appealing?

A: As a linguist, a lover of words, and a scholar of English, I find it generally interesting. It’s a wonderful work of scholarship. If you look at the breadth and range of words that are covered, and the depth in which they are covered, both historically and in terms of present day usage, every time you go to it, you’ll find something there you haven’t seen before.


Q: Like what? Have you stumbled upon anything surprising?

A: I think the biggest surprises I find are with words you wouldn’t expect. The word “do”, for instance, is a tiny two-letter word, one you wouldn’t necessarily think of as remarkable, but … you can get pages and pages of how to use this word. If you think about it for a moment, how would you define “to do”? I could make an attempt at it, but it’s so difficult to try to capture that information. And are you trying to capture it from a researcher or scholar’s perspective? Are you trying to help a second-language learner? Are you looking at it from a poet’s perspective? The lexicographer is, I think, a teacher and a poet at the same time. That makes the dictionary a very cool thing. I think the tendency would be to look at long, exotic words, but some of the coolest words are actually the ones we use every day.


Q: When did your fascination with words begin?

A: I am one of those nerds who always liked grammar and language usage. [Laughs] … From a social angle, I think I’ve always been sensitive to words. My whole family comes from the Midwest, but I grew up in the South, so I’ve always been very aware of language variation. There is variation in the way people use words and grammar and the way they pronounce things. I think from an early age I was very aware of this because of the environment I was in.


Q: Where did you grow up?

A: Perry, a small town in Georgia. My family moved there from Decorah, Iowa just before I was born.


Q: How did those language variations you mentioned manifest themselves when you were growing up?

A: If you grow up in the South, especially the rural South, you have all of the classic features of southern dialect. One of the more noticeable things is the pop-Coke distinction. My neighbors drank Coke, but my parents drank pop. You start becoming aware of these things and start thinking to yourself, “Do I drink Coke when I’m with my friends and pop when I’m with my parents?” You make conscious or unconscious decisions that have social meaning attached to them.


Q: When did you decide to turn this interest in words and language into a career?

A: I stumbled on linguistics as an undergraduate [at the University of Georgia]. It never occurred to me that that was something you could do, that you could be a linguist. I was in a lexicography class … and learned that there were linguists out there, and different types of linguists. You might work with dictionaries. You might work with second language learners. You might work with individuals who have speech impediments. The government hires linguists. Google hires linguists. They’re everywhere. They’re behind the scenes in lots of different places.


Q: With that kind of scope and opportunity out there, what made you decide to come to Valparaiso?

A: I love the school. I love its mission to integrate faith into the curriculum and make it a safe place to talk about those things. It’s a big part of my life, so it feels comfortable to know that it’s safe in the classroom if students want to bring it up, or if it’s relevant to a particular area. … That was one of the first things that really attracted me [to VU]. I have a Lutheran background, so a Lutheran school made a lot of sense to me. Additionally, I love the department I’m in. When I first came to visit, the folks in the English Department were so friendly, so warm and welcoming. I think there is a diversity of thought [in the department]. … We are all interested in the English language from different angles. There’s a great synergy there. … We also just started a MA in TESOL [Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages] program. How often do you get the chance to be involved with something cool like that from the ground up?


Q: What about the TESOL program makes it so exciting for you?

A: I love being able to put language and service together. If you learn how to use your insights into language and apply them to helping others, I think that’s a fantastic thing. I did some volunteer work with Columbus City Schools when I was living in Columbus, Ohio. We had a substantial population of Somali refugees. It’s a very interesting, rewarding experience when you have people who are coming in that not only don’t have proficiency in English, but who are working on literacy. You are able to really help someone and it’s a fantastic way to serve and build connections with people. It’s such a cool opportunity to do that here with this program.


Q: Lexicographers aside, who are some of your favorite writers?

A: For poetry, I’m a huge fan of Gerard Manley Hopkins. He’s so innovative and brilliant in terms of structure. He’s also a religious poet, so the content is appealing to me. If I was going for prose, Thomas Hardy—love Thomas Hardy.


Q: What are some of your other hobbies?

A: I consider myself an artistic person. Most recently I’ve been interested in ceramics. I started with hand forming and then went to wheel, and I recently built a kiln. That was intimidating. I haven’t actually plugged it in yet because I’m afraid of burning the place down. [Laughs] I have something I built and did the wiring for that heats up to a couple thousand degrees in my house. [I’m] terrified. I’m a big animal lover, too. I have a great big floppy-eared rabbit named Bucko. … You might at some point see him on the lawn. I take him to campus sometimes if it’s nice out. I do a lot of writing. I write poetry. It’s fun for me. I bake too.

Q: Do you have any favorite recipes?

A: Egg custard pie. Pies in general are good. So are cookies. Around Christmas there is an assortment of Norwegian cookies my family likes to make. It’s tradition.


Story and photo by Derek Smith