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Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries Hardcover – March 14, 2017
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An Amazon Best Book of March 2017: “We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but a better analogy is to think of English as a child,” writes Kory Stamper in her witty and surprising new book, Word by Word. “As English grows, it lives its own life, and this is right and healthy. Sometimes English does exactly what we think it should; sometimes it goes places we don’t like and thrives there in spite of all our worrying. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like Latin; we can throw tantrums and start learning French instead. But we will never really be the boss of it. And that’s why it flourishes.”
Word by Word is part memoir, part history of dictionaries – in particular, those published by Stamper’s employer, Merriam Webster. Language lovers (can we call them logophiles, Ms. Stamper?) will have a fine time in the author’s company as she discusses the unpredictable and uncontrollable ways of her mother tongue. The surprises come when she describes the difficulties of defining seemingly simple words like “nude” and “marriage.” Stamper and her fellow lexicographers work mostly in silence, but they can’t escape being drawn into our era’s vociferous political discourse.
Along the way, there’s much pleasure to be had in Stamper’s down-to-earth, frequently ribald narrative style, which keeps Word by Word from feeling overly intellectual or highfalutin’. Readers will find a deeper understanding of how dictionaries are compiled, and a trove of amusing insights into definitions and derivations. “On fleek”? Invented by a 16-year-old YouTuber. Pumpernickel? Translates to “fartgoblin.” Posh? If you’re certain that term derives from English-Empire lingo for “port-out-starboard-home,” think again.
While you might not choose to spend an entire month of your life writing a dictionary entry for “take,” Stamper conveys the delight, frustration, and satisfaction her vocation entails. She has that special “feeling for language” she calls sprachgefühl: “the odd buzzing in your brain that tells you that ‘planting the lettuce’ and ‘planting misinformation’ are different uses of ‘plant.’” “Word by Word” offers laymen a glimpse into a crack lexicographer’s mind, and it turns out to be – definitively – a very entertaining place indeed. --Sarah Harrison Smith, The Amazon Book Review
"As a writer, Kory Stamper can do anything with words: define them, split them, lump them, agglute them, and make them work for her every bit as ferociously and precisely as she works for them in her day job as a far from mild-mannered lexicographer at Merriam-Webster. You will never take a dictionary entry for granted again." —Mary Norris, bestselling author of Between You & Me
"A love letter to letters themselves... A cheerful and thoughtful rebuke of the cult of the grammar scolds. Stamper [is] a wry and charming correspondent. Word by Word is, like a dictionary itself, a composite affair: It’s a memoir that is also an explanation of the work that writing a dictionary entails." —Megan Garber, The Atlantic
"An unlikely page-turner…Stamper displays a contagious enthusiasm for words...Illuminating." —The New Yorker
"Delightful… Informed, irreverent and witty…A gloriously (occasionally even uproariously) well written book, and unsurprisingly erudite. Do read [Word by Word]." —Stevie Godson, New York Journal of Books
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Stamper sets the tone in her opening chapter, giving readers a first taste of what’s to come: a candid portrayal of the ins and outs of lexicography, delivered with sharp wit and exactitude. Recalling the day she was hired by Merriam-Webster, Stamper invites readers to the hushed confines and inelegant cubicles of the “modest two-story brick building” in Springfield, Massachusetts where word mavens work, in some instances for months at a time, to extricate the definition, pronunciation, and etymological origin of individual words. Such work requires a reverence for the English language not found in the average person.
"Lexicographers spend a lifetime swimming through the English language in a way that no one else does; the very nature of lexicography demands it. English is a beautiful, bewildering language, and the deeper you dive into it, the more effort it takes to come up to the surface for air."
Wading through the English language to pinpoint the perfect definition of a word requires a noiseless work environment. The “weird sort of monastic” devotion lexicographers give to the English language, and their hallowed approach to the daily challenges of providing the public with an up-to-date dictionary, lends itself to a work space that demands people speak in whispers and celebrate their lexical triumphs with silent fist pumps. How else, Stamper asks, could a lexicographer be expected to determine the difference between the words measly, small, and teensy?
"There’s nothing worse than being just a syllable’s length away from the perfect, Platonic ideal of the definition for “measly,” being able to see it crouching in the shadows of your mind, only to have it skitter away when your co-worker begins a long and loud conversation that touches on the new coffee filters, his colonoscopy, and the chances that the Sox will go all the way this year."
Colonoscopies are just the beginning of Stamper’s comedic contributions. She blends sophistication with humor at every turn, making the act of reading about dictionaries an absolute delight. Stamper was drawn to the life of a lexicographer, she asserts, recounting an incident when she embarrassed her daughter in public:
“Are you taking pictures for work again?”
“Oh my God,” [my daughter] moaned, “can you ever just, like, live like a normal person?”
“Hey, I didn’t choose the dictionary life – ”
“Just stop – ”
“ – the dictionary life – ”
“ – chose me,” I finished, and she threw her head back and sighed in exasperation.
Many of Stamper’s amusing asides are delivered as footnotes, such as her reaction to the 1721 edition of Nathaniel Bailey’s An [sic] Universal Etymological English Dictionary, whose subtitle goes on for another two hundred and twenty-two words and garners Stamper’s facetious remark: "They sure don’t title dictionaries like they used to."
facetious \ fuh-see-shuh s \ adj: 1: not meant to be taken seriously or literally 2: amusing; humorous 3: lacking serious intent; concerned with something nonessential, amusing, or frivolous.
It stands to reason that a person who specializes in defining words would demonstrate an exemplary understanding of the English language, and Stamper more than proves herself a talented wordsmith. Her use of ten-dollar words is employed in a friendly manner. Some words are defined in the footnotes, while others remain undefined and will, fittingly, send many readers running to the dictionary. While the procedure for compiling defined words into a viable resource is fascinating, Word by Word would not be as entertaining were it not infused with Stamper’s snarky personality.
The work of a lexicographer, however, requires that the person – rather, the lexicographer’s personality – be removed from the equation. “You must set aside your own linguistic and lexical prejudices about what makes a word worthy, beautiful, or right, to tell the truth about language,” Stamper explains, because writing definitions isn’t about making hard and fast rules for a word – as so many people are inclined to think – but rather, it’s an act of recording how words are being used in speech and, more importantly, in publications.
The common misperception that lexicographers are the definitive authority on the English language – whose definitions and pronunciations of words are akin to law ordained by divine beings – has resulted in more than a few letters being sent by confused or outraged individuals to Merriam-Webster’s physical and digital inboxes. Perhaps the most compelling example of this concerns the 2003 release of the Eleventh Collegiate dictionary in which the word “marriage” was redefined to include the sub-sense (a secondary meaning of a word): "the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage." This new sub-sense was added because in the late 1990’s, when revisions to the Collegiate Dictionary began, the issue of same-sex marriage was widely debated, prevalent not just in speech but also in nearly every major news publication.
Six years after its publication, one person noticed the new sub-sense in the Eleventh Collegiate dictionary’s definition of “marriage,” took offense to it, and launched a fiery write-in campaign that inundated Stamper’s inbox with hundreds of complaints and accusations against Merriam-Webster, along with numerous threats to harm Stamper. These angry letter-writers maintained a strident adherence to the misconception that lexicographers somehow shape language, culture, and religion. Further, they failed to understand that the very act of writing about gay marriage (regardless of the vehemence they assigned to the idea of same-sex couples being legally wed) worked to create citational evidence of the word “marriage” being widely used in relation to gay couples. In other words, the efforts made by the appalled letter-writers indirectly worked to validate that the word “marriage” had, in fact, been due for a revisal of its definition to encompass its many usages.
From dealing with irate letter-writers to spending months teasing out the proper definition of overly complicated words like “is” or “a,” the work of a lexicographer is thankless. Lexicographers don’t have their names assigned to the dictionaries on which they work tirelessly. And the English language, fluid in nature and ever changing, never stops demanding that dedicated word connoisseurs hunch over their desks and puzzle out the most effective definition to encapsulate a words new usage.
"When the dictionary finally hits the market, there is no grand party or celebration. (Too loud, too social.) We’re already working on the next update to that dictionary, because language has moved on. There will never be a break. A dictionary is out of date the minute that it’s done."
Word by Word is a sublime romp through the secret life of dictionaries; a guaranteed rapturous read for word lovers, grammar fanatics, and linguists.
Stamper's clear and sometimes blunt use of language was refreshing. She provides great insight into how dictionaries work and how they evolve, at least at M-W. Dictionaries describe usage; they don't dictate or validate it.
I enjoy playing with words. And I get a kick out of plays on words. Yet, I’ve always felt strapped by my self-imposed anal compulsion to stick to and enforce the rules. Now, at last, an authoritative source has set me free! (Why do I need an authoritative source to begin with? Well, that’s a whole nother story. Or maybe even two nother stories.) According to author Kory Stamper, there’s no logical basis for a rule that says it’s wrong to wantonly split an infinitive. Even more startling, I can even pick any preposition I like to end a sentence with! And, as if that weren’t enough, its historically and grammatically consistent to drop the apostrophe from the “it-is” contraction and to put one in it’s possessive.
So, let freedom wring all the creativity it can muster out of those words!
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