I had so much fun reading this book, which is a behind-the-scenes look at how lexicographers put together a dictionary. Kory Stamper is a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, and therefore can tell the reader what it was like to be hired and trained to work on the M-W dictionaries; what the atmosphere on the floor is like (very quiet); what is involved in maintaining and putting to use the citation files (lots of reading & marking printed materials, then sorting through them when it’s time to define or redefine); and what is involved in defining and determining the pronunciation of words. It was all quite exciting for someone who loves words.
Stamper gave me a different perspective on “proper” usage of the English language. I have been, as she says, a peever ever since junior high school English classes. I was taught what was “proper” served up with a liberal dose of value judgment: if you do it this way, you will be better than people who do not. Nose-in-the-air stuff. But there is a history behind these preferences. I have, in effect, picked up a style of English usage which was taught to my teachers by their teachers. I’ll give you an example that’s important to me. I love Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I have seen poems and letters in her handwriting, and it has been difficult for me to look past what I was sure was improper use of the words “its” and “it’s.” Well, Stamper gives the reader some history on this subject. By golly, things were different back then. Sorry, Emily, for doubting you.
There’s some good humor (and a lot of blue language) in the book. Lexicographers never start working on a dictionary with the letter “a” because “a” through “d” includes a relatively large number of words so you warm up and settle on a consistent style by starting in the middle. Also, the “a” through “d” section’s definitions get the most attention from reviewers and critics. There is a lot of work involved, under pressing time deadlines. Stamper gives a funny example of what she considers desperation to finish in this definition of “fish stick” which appeared in an earlier edition of the M-W Dictionary: “a stick of fish.” Ha, ha. Of course, I had to look up the definition of “fish stick” in my M-W Eleventh Edition: “fish stick n (1953) : a small elongated breaded fillet of fish.” This started a discussion in my household about whether those things we ate as kids were “fillets” and before you know it, we were watching videos on the internet showing the production of fish sticks from big blocks of frozen fish. The jury is out on this one. Fillets or flakes?
Anyway, I recommend this book to word-lovers who won’t be turned off by a strong dose of profanity.
5 comments on “Week 7 Word by Word, by Kory Stamper”
This sounds so fun– what an interesting topic to explore !
This is great, Teri, thank you! I’ve had Word by Word on my bookshelf for quite some time. Now I’m really motivated finally to read it! This summer, I’ve had a bit of an inside track as to what goes on at the Oxford English Dictionary new word group: my daughter is just finishing up a 10-week long internship with the small group of people (mostly millennials) who are in charge of finding new words that have crept into common usage and may be deemed worthy of inclusion in those august volumes. She’s had to read newly-published books, scour social media and other digital platforms, and find new words with new meanings and also old words with new meanings. One that made it this summer is–of course–“screenager.” It’s because of this generation that is growing up in front of screens of all kinds that our language also grows and stays supple.
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How exciting, Nadia. This OED internship sounds like a dream. Yes, sources have gotten more and more daunting to cover in the age of the internet; nevertheless Stamper was aided in her work on the definition of the color “nude” by what she spotted in a store’s makeup section. “Screenager” is a new one on me, but that’s because I’m not one. Screenoldager? 😀
Kory Stamper is no longer at M-W. She does have a blog on WordPress, I see.
Teri, your review together with Nadia’s comment reminded me of a book I read a long time ago called The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. It was a great read.
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Thanks for reminding me about that book, Barbara. I know it was on my list–but did I read it? Surely I would remember. But, then again, I have a brain crammed full of the data from many (ahem) years of living. I’m going to check out my list of books checked out on the library website.
Just yesterday I reserved the book “Obit” which is similar, in that it is behind the scenes at the New York Times obituary desk.
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