The Case for Keming
Why now is the time to add “keming” to the dictionary
A few weeks ago, on April 14th, the theme of the New York Times crossword puzzle was “keming.” I think it’s time we talk seriously about elevating that word from internet joke and finally adding it to the dictionary. To that end, I’ve started a petition imploring Merriam-Webster to add “keming” to their dictionary, and you should sign to show your support for this important issue.
This edition of the newsletter is my argument.
I coined the word “keming” in 2008, defining it as “the result of improper kerning.” It’s a bit of visual wordplay because kerning is the adjustment of space between letters and if you kern the word kerning improperly, the r and n can merge to form an m. “Kerning” becomes “keming.”
I shared this word on my blog, which was read at the time by lots of people with a similarly nerdy sense of humor. I made this image for the post:
The word took off in a big way. I was asked by readers to make t-shirts, which I did and they were a hit. And then the copycats came along, sometimes stealing my actual image and putting it on their own merchandise, and sometimes recreating it.
I’m usually upset when someone steals my work for profit. But this time it didn’t bother me so much. I liked that people connected with the joke. I wanted keming to go viral and become a real word. And for that to happen, I would need to let it go.
So I watched as the word spread, largely divorced from me. First it was shared on joke meme sites. Then I heard about graphic design classes that put keming posters on the walls. People began pointing out amusing examples of keming on social media, using the word as intended, to describe the improper kerning they came across.
A subreddit dedicated to sharing instances of keming emerged. It now has nearly 250,000 members. In 2019, it entered the top 1,000 subreddits.
The use of keming is significant enough that Wikipedia’s entry on kerning notes that “the term ‘keming’ is sometimes used informally to refer to poor kerning.”
Even Google has embraced keming, adding an easter egg to their search engine. If you search for the word “kerning” you’ll find that the word is too widely spaced out wherever it appears in the results list. And if you search for “keming” you’ll find the word too tightly spaced in the results list.
Keming has also jumped to print.
A book called Graphic Design Referenced includes keming in its section on typesetting:
There’s a guide to InDesign that warns people to be careful about keming:
The book Mastering Type includes a similar warning:
(Although I’m skeptical of a book on “mastering type” that leaves a word orphaned at the bottom of a paragraph like that.)
And most recently, last month the New York Times explained keming to readers attempting their April 14 crossword puzzle:
This was actually not the first time the New York Times mentioned keming. Back in 2017, there was a clue “Goes from stem to stern, maybe?” The answer was “MISREAD” which the Times explained in their crossword puzzle column this way:
The word itself is not regarded strictly as a joke anymore. It’s a description of a typographical phenomenon. It can be used humorously, but it doesn’t need to be. It is a useful word that is here to stay.
So what makes it Dictionary-worthy?
Merriam-Webster explains that the primary criteria for inclusion in their dictionary is that a word “must have enough citations to show that it is widely used.” While I’ve listed some of the most significant citations above, is that enough to show that it’s widely used?
On any day, a search for keming on reddit or Twitter will show new instances of people using it to point out bad kerning. While those are not printed citations, Merriam-Webster has taken the stance that “internet slang is fair game” for the dictionary. There are new citations for keming on the internet every day.
But Merriam-Webster also says that no matter how many citations a word has, “a word may be rejected for entry into a general dictionary if all of its citations come from a single source or if they are all from highly specialized publications that reflect the jargon of experts within a single field.” So is keming too specialized?
It’s true that the word keming does relate specifically to typography. But it’s not a word only used by experts within that field any more than the words “font,” “serif,” or “descender,” all of which appear in the Merriam-Webster dictionary with typography-focused definitions. These are all words that everyday people use and understand because of the tools we use in modern life to write papers and send emails. Keming may not be as widespread as “font,” but it’s certainly used by the general public — I’d guess more often than “descender” — and not just by specialists.
Am I sure I made that word up?
Several years ago, in a reddit discussion of the origin of keming, someone wrote:
Is this guy trying to claim that he invented the word keming? I'm pretty sure I was using the word long before 2008, like maybe even as early as 1993? And I know I didn't invent the word either.
It’s totally possible people used the word before 2008. Or perhaps this is an instance of people thinking the word was in use already because it feels so obvious (like “bucket list”). My own attempts to definitively answer this have been difficult because searching any corpus of earlier scanned literature yields thousands of false-positives due to, ironically, keming.
The word “kerning” is often mistaken by character-recognition software as “keming.” So all my search results for “keming” were actually about kerning, or about people or places named Keming. Inclusion in the dictionary relies on written instances of a word, and I can find none predating mine.
But! If people have been using keming this way since before 2008, I say that’s an even stronger case for the staying power of the word and its inclusion in the dictionary, if it’s been in use and growing even longer than we realize.
Why a petition? Why now?
With everything that’s going on in the world, I think we could all use something we can agree on and get behind regardless of political affiliation, something light enough that it doesn’t take too much mental energy, that you won’t get stressed about, that we can enjoy fighting for together, and that ultimately has little consequence.
This is that thing.
You may say, that’s not really how dictionaries work. You can’t just petition a word into the dictionary. To which I say, lalalala I can’t hear you.
Join the keming revolution. Sign the petition today. And pass it on.
That’s it for this week’s newsletter. If you’re new around here, check out the archives where you’ll find some of my favorite posts. If you’re old around here, recommend this newsletter to a friend. And if you’re middle-aged around here, welcome to the club.
Until next time, thanks for reading.
It's nice to hear you're so accommodating about this concept getting shared without attribution. But I still credit you in a comment when I run across it!