Book Review//Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper



I missed my calling in life. After reading Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries I have realized that I am meant to be sitting in a quiet office in Springfield, MA reading about, researching, and occasionally discussing words. It sounds absolutely wonderful.

I loved this book. It is everything I like in nonfiction. It discussed a subject I knew little about in an approachable, informative, and entertaining manner. And it was about words. I like words.

Kory Stamper is a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster. The making of a dictionary may not sound like the most fascinating subject but, believe me, it is. Stamper discusses how definitions are written, how word use has changed over the years, and how our perceptions of the English language affects our response to dictionaries. Yes, people do have, according to Stamper, very strong feelings about dictionaries. Stamper says:

Many people-and many people who think they'd be good at this lexicography gig-believe that the dictionary is some great guardian of the English language, that its job is to set boundaries of decorum around this profligate language like a great linguistic housemother setting curfew. Words that have made it into the dictionary are Official with a Capital O, sanctioned, part of Real and Proper English. The corollary is that if certain words are bad, uncouth, unlovely, or distasteful, then folks think that the dictionary will make sure they are never entered into its hallowed pages, and thus are such words banished from Real, Official, Proper English. The language is thus protected, kept right, pure, good.  This is commonly called "prescriptivism," and it is unfortunately not how dictionaries work at all. We don't just enter the good stuff; we enter the bad and the ugly stuff, too. We are just observers, and the goal is to describe, as accurately as possible, as much of the language as we can. 

Stamper has such a way with words which I realize is not at all surprising considering she works with them all day every day. (Oh, the dream! Why can't I?)  I like this passage about the English language.

We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but a better analogy is to think of English as a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don't want it to go:  it heads right for the goddammed electrical sockets. We dress it in fancy clothes and tell it to behave, and it comes home with its underwear on its head and wearing someone else's socks. 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 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. 

People get very upset about changes to the English language. I have read whole threads on Twitter written by people upset that a word is being used incorrectly. This seems to become more and more common as the world, and the English language becomes more homogenous. I understand how they feel. I have words and grammar issues that push my buttons. However,  language changes, usage changes, words change. Sometimes we have to change too, hard as that is.

Etymological fallacy is the worst sort of pedantry: a meaningless personal opinion trying to dress itself up as conern for preserving historical principles. It misses that language change itself is a historical principle: a language that doesn't change is a dead language, and as much as etymological fallacists seem to love the purity of Latin, you'll notice that none of them have abandoned that whore English for it.

If you have ever wondered how a dictionary is written, or even if you haven't, read Word By Word. It will give you a whole new appreciation for the English language and for the people who record its usage in the dictionaries we all occasionally pull off our shelves.

I will be here, dreaming of that office in Springfield, where I could spend my days researching words, talking of words, using words, and writing about words.



6 comments

  1. I loved this book too! It's so great, both funny and informative, and you've perfectly captured its charm here. I'd never really thought about how dictionaries come into being, all the scut work and hard decisions that go into them. Dreyer's English is also a very enjoyable book along similar lines.

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    1. I have picked up Dreyer's English in a bookshop recently but ended up putting it back on the shelf. That was probably a mistake.

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  2. You'd probably also enjoy two books by Simon Winchester (if you haven't already) about the OED: The Surgeon of Crowthorne (about the American prisoner, Dr WC Minor, who contributed huge numbers of entries to the dictionary compilers), and The Meaning of Everything.

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    1. Thank you for the recommendations. I will look for these. They sound interesting.

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  3. Thanks for writing about this one, it sounds so interesting and I know would be right up Jack's street.

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