Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries – A Review

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While most of us might take dictionaries for granted, the process of writing them is in fact as lively and dynamic as language itself. With sharp wit and irreverence, Kory Stamper cracks open the complex, obsessive world of lexicography–from the agonizing decisions about what and how to define, to the knotty questions of usage in an ever-changing language. She explains why small words are the most difficult to define (have you ever tried to define is ?), how it can take nine months to define a single word, and how our biases about language and pronunciation can have tremendous social influence. Throughout, Stamper brings to life the hallowed halls (and highly idiosyncratic cubicles) of Merriam-Webster, a world inhabited by quirky, erudite individuals who quietly shape the way we communicate. A sure delight for all lovers of words, Word by Word might also quietly improve readers grasp and use of the English language.”

Word by Word is an eminently readable book about the fascinating world of dictionary making.

In the final leg of the book, Stamper quotes one of her colleagues. “I feel like people take the dictionary for granted to a large extent. They don’t think of it as having been written by anybody, and they don’t appreciate all the decisions that had to be made for everything in it. They’ll notice errors, but you can’t notice excellence in a dictionary, for the most part, because it consists of a lack of errors.”

That is exactly right. I am in the process of writing a novel, and I have abused thesaurus.com and googled the meaning of perfectly mundane words like happy or precise dozens of times. Not once did I stop to consider the work behind defining such words and presenting them to consumers like me in an easily digestible way.

But I remember a time when I, like most born before the internet era, used to have a favourite dictionary. It was a tiny thing, smaller than the palm of my hand. It couldn’t have held more than a hundred words. Most of the definitions I looked up weren’t there, but I delighted in learning new words from it. Thanks to Word by Word, I now have a vague idea how a dictionary such as that came about to be.

The quiet world of the introverted lexicographers, the meticulous art of gathering and looking up citations, and the thought that goes into crafting each and every definition while being intensely economical was a captivating read.

People do not come to the dictionary for excitement and romance; that’s what encyclopedias are for.

The author infuses the book with a lot of humour. Whether it’s her commentary on the dictionary wars of the nineteen century, or on the armchair etymologists writing to them about fake origins of words, or how the words that take them the longest to revise are words that probably no-one ever looks up (like run or take). Her scathing indictment of grammar nazis and ridiculousness of language-based classism was gratifying.

Etymological fallacy is the worst sort of pedantry: a meaningless personal opinion trying to dress itself up as concern 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.

I understand now that a dictionary is not an authority on language. It is a progress report on it; it’s not just about the new words added to our vocabulary but also the way old words are morphed to mean something new.

It was also fascinating to discover what dictionaries and language mean to people:

The incarcerated asking us to explain the difference between “misdemeanor” and “felony”; the parents who have lost a child and write hoping that we know of a simple word, like “widow” or “orphan,” that is a placeholder for their pain, some word that will spare them the inevitable and exhausting explication of their loss to a stranger. We don’t just want our words to have meaning, we want them to mean something, and the difference is palpable.

A language is not pure or impure. Everything we bemoan as a new-age fad is old, very old. No one person gets to say what is allowed and what isn’t.

“We think that we have the right to go through the photo album of English’s life and throw away the pictures that don’t make sense—blurred pictures, or snaps from that unfortunate stage when it was surly and uncooperative. But those deviations from the plumb line contain surprises and delights not just about English but about the world we live in.”

Stamper’s case studies were engaging, especially her cultural commentary using the changing definition of the word ‘bitch’.

Around 1400, this sense began showing up in texts; one early citation gives us a line that sounds like it’s been pulled straight from the liner notes of a heavy metal album: “þou bycche blak as kole [thou bitch black as coal].”

You can see Kory Stamper’s love for words by the way she has peppered her book with choicest of strange words (like fusty or borborygmus).

Word by Word was such an absorbing, fun, and educating read. Even the footnotes were so interesting that I read every single one of them. I’d recommend it to anyone with even a mild interest in languages.

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