Kory Stamper Shares Her Love For Language in the Delightful ‘Word by Word’

Every last syllable of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries (Pantheon Books, 2017) is utterly delightful. You should seek it out and read it immediately. The End.

cover image for Word by Word book.

OK, that’s not much of a review. Let’s try again.

Kory Stamper is a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster, which means, essentially, that she and her colleagues write the dictionary. She’s long been one of my favorite word-nerd Twitter follows (@KoryStamper), because she is smart and profanely witty and even more in love with language than I am. More than once, as she has shared some wry observation about the lexicographical life, I’ve thought, “Man, that would be my dream job.” And now, she’s written a book for all of us who have ever wondered, “How on earth do you write a dictionary, exactly?”

Stamper cleverly constructed the book as a series of chapters, each focused on one particular dictionary word. But she uses a word’s story to tell her own, in the process highlighting all the aspects of lexicography that go far beyond writing definitions. The word “but” is the jumping-off point to discuss how grammar figures into dictionary writing, and the tremendous difficulty sometimes of pinning down just what part of speech a particular usage of a particular word actually is — and how none of that is what most people mean when they talk about grammar:

To them, “grammar” is a loose conglomeration of stylistic word choices that get codified into right and wrong, misspellings that every English speaker has made at some point in their life and yet are branded as “bad grammar,” half-remembered “rules” about usage shamed into them by their middle-school English teachers, and personal, sometimes irrational dislikes. This is the grammar that shows up on Internet memes about “your” and “you’re,” the sort of grammar people are referring to when they claim you can’t end a sentence with a preposition, the grammar that is invoked when people claim that the “10 items or less” sign at the grocery store is “bad grammar.”

Kory Stamper, Word by Word

That excerpt probably gives you a clue that Stamper is — as indeed are all lexicographers and the dictionaries they create — descriptionist rather than prescriptionist. Despite years of claims to the contrary (including the marketing materials of those self-same dictionaries!) the purpose of a dictionary is to describe and define language as it is being used by ordinary people right now, not to settle bets or teach anyone the One True Way. A similar message is conveyed in the chapter about “it’s,” wherein I learned that in fact the possessive and plural forms of that word were pretty much interchangeable for hundreds of years, including in the King James Bible and much of Shakespeare.

Other chapters use a specific word as the basis for illuminating the myriad tasks that a lexicographer performs every day: searching written materials to find new citations for new words as well as new ways of using old words; the tricky considerations that go into defining the word “surfboard,” which seems deceptively obvious until you try to pin it down; how small, ordinary words like “take” and “set” are the hardest to pin down because they have so many senses and subtleties of meaning (Stamper refers to them as “semantically oozy”). 

A chapter on revising the entry for “bitch” expands into a discussion of how dictionaries treat words that are considered vulgar or derogatory, and the problems that arise when not everyone agrees that certain words or sub-senses of words deserve to be labeled as such (including the problem that the majority of the people making those calls are still older white men of relative privilege who have not experienced having those words hurled at them in very personal ways).

But wait! There’s more! There are also chapters on the challenges of nailing down a word’s etymology, and how a good anecdote (“posh” is shorthand for “port out, starboard home”) is no substitute for actual documentation; the never-ending search to find the earliest known written use of each word; and the tricky business of conveying pronunciation that can accommodate dialect differences (this is why dictionaries use phonemic alphabets so that the letter i is pronounced like the vowel in pin, whatever that may sound like in your dialect). Again Stamper makes the point that the dictionary’s focus is on describing usage, not judging right and wrong.

The final chapter details how all hell broke loose in 2009, when some evangelicals noticed that the dictionary had added a sub-sense to the word “marriage” that described relationships between people of the same sex. (That the definition had changed six years earlier with no one noticing did not stem the outrage.) It’s a thoughtful intro to discussion of how people often get very angry about specific dictionary entries because they feel the dictionary is instigating societal changes that make them uncomfortable instead of simply describing how society has already changed. 

I no longer have any illusions that being a lexicographer is like getting to have ice cream for breakfast every day. It seems now to be a difficult, demanding, and rewarding endeavor that requires skills that go beyond just “loving words”. Loving words is definitely a prerequisite, though, and this book will give you an even greater appreciation of the nutty ways that English has developed and evolved over the centuries. If I had my life to live over, I could think of much worse ways to spend it than writing a dictionary.

2 thoughts on “You could look it up

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