The Secret Life of Dictionaries
It’s another nonfiction book club pick! As someone who is fascinated by books and journalism, I’m really not all that interested in the English language and how it functions – I never really learned grammar properly, and (as I’m sure this post and others can verify) am often in need of a copy editor. But the group wanted to read it, and I was happy to read a book outside my normal nonfiction genres.
From the back cover:
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 goddamned electrical sockets.
With wit and irreverence, lexicographer Kory Stamper cracks open the obsessive world of dictionary writing, from the agonizing decisions about what to define and how to do it to the knotty questions of ever-changing word usage.
Filled with fun facts – for example, the first document usage of “OMG” was in a letter to Winston Churchill – and Stamper’s own stories from the linguistic front lines (including how she became America’s foremost “irregardless” apologist, despite loathing the world), Word by Word is an endlessly entertaining look at the wonderful complexities and eccentricities of the English language.
I did not expect a book about the secret life of dictionaries to make me laugh so much. I also did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did. While I said I don’t always find the English language as fascinating and interesting as our author, and some book club members, I am fascinated by etymology – the linguistic history of a word. As someone who grew up speaking both English and German/Deutsch (and still often speaks a weird form of Denglisch without meaning to), I love to see where supposedly English words show up in other languages, and where other languages’ words show up in English, without much change to their core structure, if any at all.
Kory Stamper is a lexicographer, an editor of dictionaries, specifically Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, and in her part language exploration part memoir of a book, she goes into detail as to how she wound up as a lexicographer alongside the history of the modern dictionary and a few humor-laded essays about specific words found in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
She covers everything from parts of speech (which I first learned in German, then was very confused with English’s), to dialects (and societal-influenced biases towards different dialects), to the structure of a dictionary definition (including senses, dates and etymology), how the written word lags behind the spoken word (words cannot be added to a dictionary without written examples), and how there are even dictionary trolls.
The dictionary trolls don’t just judge the lexicographers bad spelling or incorrectly labeled part of speech, but have launched all out hate campaigns based on a dictionary’s definition of a certain word. Like “marriage.” Kory’s final chapter in the book goes into great detail about a hate campaign launched online against Merriam-Webster’s dictionary based on that single word’s definition. Specifically, the fact that the definition formerly included a direct reference to gay marriage (it’s now gender-neutral).
I’ve dealt with a few internet trolls in my life, but never, ever, did I consider the sheer amount of vitriol that would be launched against a dictionary in the digital age. While I won’t go into the final points of the chapter (it’s really worth reading), it is harrowing to me to think that in this era of “fake news,” not even a lowly definition is safe from hate.
I learned far more from Word by Word than I ever thought I would, and I feel like a better educated and informed human being for it. So if you’ve ever wondered why words are defined as they are, or want to know fully how vicious the dictionary trolls can be, pick it up, take a look, and I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Rating: 8 out of 10
2 thoughts on “Word by Word by Kory Stamper”
I never imagined such a thing as dictionary trolls existed. I’d seen this book before but like you wasn’t so sure I was very interested in it. Although I find a lot of things about etymology interesting too, I just can’t get muster much enthusiasm for lexicography. But this sounds different from what I was imagining. Will have to check it out…thanks for such a great review!
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