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.