- Hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: Pantheon (March 14, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 110187094X
- ISBN-13: 978-1101870945
- Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars See all reviews (109 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #8,152 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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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Top customer reviews
Stamper is passionate about her work. "The more I learned," she writes, " the more I fell in love with this wild, vibrant whore of a language." Her book abounds with charming examples of the intensity she and other Merriam-Webster editors bring to their jobs. And no wonder: it's clearly hard work.
Unless you're already familiar with the ways and means of lexicography, you'll be amazed at the extraordinary pains the Merriam-Webster staff sometimes takes simply to define a single word. "By the time a word is put in print either on the page or online, it's generally been seen by a minimum of ten editors." Stamper describes the process, step by step, in language so lively you'll never think about the world of dictionaries as stuffy ever again. "What appears to be a straightforward word ends up being a linguistic fun house of doors that open into air and staircases that lead nowhere," she writes. For example, at one point Stamper's job was to revise the definition of "take." That seemingly simple word, it turns out, means twenty different things. Sorting through all the citations set aside to illustrate those different definitions was a Herculean task. It required "a month of nonstop editorial work." But when Stamper bragged (or complained) to a table-full of editors at a dinner about the length of time she'd invested in a single word, a lexicographer from the Oxford English Dictionary was amused: "'I revised "run," he said quietly, then smiled. 'It took me nine months.'" Stamper explains: "Of course it [took nine months]. In the OED, "run" has over six hundred separate senses [definitions] . . ."
And yet language, especially English, changes far more quickly than lexicographers could ever possibly keep up, Stamper explains. "A dictionary is out of date the minute that it's done."
In an extended discussion of English grammar, Stamper will disabuse you of any lingering notion that ours is a tidy and rational language. With example after example, she demonstrates the sheer illogic of the rules of grammar. "[W]here do these rules come from, if not from actual use?" she asks. "Most of them are the personal peeves, codified into law, of dead white men of yore . . . Standard English as it is presented by grammarians and pedants is a dialect that is based on a mostly fictional, static, and Platonic ideal of usage." (The italics are Stamper's.)
Throughout her book, Stamper is free with profanity. For example, she drops the "f-bomb" 17 times. At one point she explains that the profanity is to make her come across as cooler than she is.
There are plenty of surprises in Word by Word. "As you go through the written record, you'll find that Shakespeare used double negatives and Jane Austen used 'ain't.' You'll find that new and disputed coinages have come in and have not taken away from the language as it was used, but added to it; that words previously considered horrendous or ugly—words like 'can't'—are now unremarkable."
If you love language, you'll be enchanted by this brilliant and funny book.
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!
Most recent customer reviews
online use. Book is enlightening and entertaining in all respects.Read more
As Kory Stamper can tell you, it's nothing that simple.Read more