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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