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How to Read a Word 1st Edition

3.7 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0199574896
ISBN-10: 0199574898
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Back in 2008, Ammon Shea gave us Reading the OED, and now Knowles, a historical lexicographer who worked on the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, takes a more granular approach to dictionary analysis. Her step-by-step process in “unlocking the wordhoard” starts with understanding the elements in a dictionary definition, then looking beyond the dictionary definition to other sources in order to explore usage and context. The web is rich in possibilities, ranging from dictionary and word sites to search engines such as Google. A chapter is devoted to understanding how to use various resources, and another to understanding what is found. Finally, there are suggestions to the reader about building his or her own cache of word files. A helpful annotated list of online general and specialist dictionaries, thesauruses, corpora, and word sites rounds out the book. Numerous examples of the author’s own word hunts help convey her love of language and might inspire others to set out on similar journeys. --Mary Ellen Quinn


"The entirety of How to Read a Word encourages us to be thoughtful about words, to really dig and learn, and not take them for granted. It is filled with specific examples and anecdotes which serve to inform, entertain and explain many ways in which words form, are created, change and are adopted. Words and definitions are serious business. They evolve over time, passing in and out of fashion... For anyone interested in words, How to Read a Word is a very exciting read." --Jenny Williams, Wired

'How to Read a Word focuses on building linguistic self-reliance and competence a necessity in an era where there are millions of Web pages devoted to giving answers, but very few trying to teach you to ask the right questions. How to Read a Word falls firmly into the "teach a man to fish" category of language books, and those who use it wisely are sure to catch good information on their hooks.' --Erin McKean, The Boston Globe

"Wonderfully, generously, Knowles shares with us an insider's view of lexicography, placing stress on precision, accuracy and authenticity... There's nothing wrong with How to Read a Word, not at all: everything about it is right. Every literate adult should be acquainted with it; college curriculums should mandate it." --Ange Mlinko, The Nation


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (November 19, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199574898
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199574896
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 0.8 x 5.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #232,475 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Though the title seems presumptuous, I was excited to hear of this book by a lexicographer from the staff at Oxford. I expected myriad allusions to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) as the holy grail of etymology - and there were quite a few - but they were reasonably placed. Due credit was accorded to Dictionary.com, Wikipedia and several new and interesting private sources.

Most of the text explains how to research an interesting word or expression using, of course, the OED and the Oxford corpus. I found most of these chapters redundant and slightly boring. Anyone who has used google for research is familiar with the basics listed here, so being told repeatedly how to do a keyword search can get a bit tedious. It's word origins 101, but the author is most likely hoping to reach a broader audience.

I enjoyed the vivid word examples and origin histories provided. I almost wish there were more. For example, the increasing validity of the word "nucular" proves that typos and mispronunciations, however moronic, turn into accepted words eventually (of which apparently I too am guilty, as my use of "typo" indicates). Researching "blue moon" revealed some insights into astrology and folklore. The appendices were most helpful, from "Pathways to English" highlighting the eras and dates of derivative languages, to "Dictionary History." The chapter on the word "satsuma" is particularly enlightening. My suggestion to readers is to begin with the glossary, then read the appendix, then the text.
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Format: Hardcover
A great many books have been published over the past fifty years alone on the origin and meaning of various unusual English words, phrases, and idioms. I know, because I've read probably most of them. Knowles has a long history of involvement with Oxford's dictionary-publishing tradition and what she attempts here is not another collection of anecdotal mini-histories but a systematic discussion of how one properly investigates word origins and usages. In the early days of the OED and its successor publications, this meant paging patiently through books and newspapers and journals, hunting for examples -- and that, in fact, was Knowles's first job. Nowadays, though, the publication of so many full-text sources on the Internet makes the search much more efficient and (potentially) more complete.

Unfortunately, Knowles doesn't seem to quite know how to go about explaining what she so obviously knows. The chapter on types of dictionaries, what they're actually for, and how to read an entry, wavers between providing unnecessary details on the obvious to saying nothing at all about the not-so-obvious. "Where to Look for Answers" relates her own anecdotal pre-computer experiences but only mentions a handful of well-known websites on English word usage. I reread the "Understanding What We Have Found" a couple of times and still didn't find much about interpretation -- just a few more anecdotes. And throughout, she skips from one subject to another and back again, making it difficult to keep track of anything.

And the last 40% of the book (which runs less than 200 pages in any case) is all appendices, which largely repeat in outline form what the author has stated earlier in the book. The author has missed the opportunity to take popular interest in lexicography (such as it is) in a new, more organized direction.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Although there are many delightful examples of word research in this book, one can only wish that there were more. No doubt that was the author's plan -- to encourage readers to do some research on their own. There are numerous helpful references to help such readers get started.
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