Book review: ‘Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries’ by Kory Stamper

Dictionaries occupy a unique cultural space straddling invisibility and authority. Those of us with a keen interest in words, be it professional, hobbyist, or obsessive to the point of mania, now and then ponder the mystique of these works of reference. Who writes them? What drew them to the work? How were they trained? Who decides what to include? How, exactly, do dictionaries come to be?

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, answers all the questions you might care to ask a lexicographer. It casts a coruscating light on the never-ending work of a dictionary – ‘a human document, constantly being compiled, proofread, and updated by actual, living, awkward people’ – and also, necessarily, on words themselves in all their strange, slippery wonder.

Each chapter in Word by Word is named after a word that serves as a base from which Stamper explores deeper, broader issues of lexicography and of the English language, such as its history, politics, and essential mutability. For example, ‘Irregardless: On Wrong Words’ examines variety in English negation and the social status of dialects. Stamper’s initial aversion to irregardless, this ‘harbinger of linguistic doom’, softens through exposure and investigation to the point where she becomes ‘America’s foremost “irregardless” apologist’.

Other chapters consider grammar, etymology and its common fallacies, pronunciation (why nucular doesn’t imply ill education), taboo words, the raw material for dictionary entries (everything you can imagine, from food packaging to specialist journals), readers’ correspondence (including a fraught racial controversy over the definition of nude), and the thorny question of authority – something foisted on dictionaries by their publishers and the public but over which the definers themselves consistently demur.

Misconceptions about dictionaries flourish. People believe they seldom or never change, that they confer some kind of official status on words, or that they endorse what they define, be it ain’t or slurs. Word by Word, as well as being hugely informative on linguistic topics, is also a valuable corrective to such fallacies. In detailing what dictionaries do, it underscores their cultural worth while acknowledging their limitations:

Meaning is a spectrum; you are only describing the biggest data clusters on that spectrum.

Stamper has a flair for wry, pithy humour, turning her prose to sharp and often very funny effect. ‘People do not come to the dictionary for excitement and romance,’ she deadpans; ‘that’s what encyclopedias are for.’ Merriam-Webster’s training takes place around a small table where ‘four editors can sit comfortably and six in introverted terror’.

This wit combines with memorable analogy. Here, for example, Stamper briskly sums up the age-old practice of modelling English on Latin:

Blending grammatical systems from two languages on different branches of the Indo-European tree is a bit like mixing orange juice and milk: you can do it, but it’s going to be nasty.

While this early passage, on an epiphany she experiences after beginning to study Old English, contains many choice examples:

I had spent years hoovering up words as quickly and indiscriminately as I could, the linguistic equivalent of a dog snarfing up spilled popcorn; I gobbled up “sing” and “singeth” without much thought about why the forms were so different. My only thought was stupid English. But those illogical lunacies of English that we all suffer through and rage against aren’t illogical at all. It’s all spelled out here, in the baby pictures of English.

From that point on, I was a woman obsessed: I traced words across the rough sword and buckler of Old English, over the sibilant seesaw of Middle English, through the bawdy wink-wink-nudge-nudge of Shakespeare; I picked and chipped at words like “supercilious” until I found the cool, slow-voweled Latin and Greek under them. I discovered that “nice” used to mean “lewd” and “stew” used to mean “whorehouse.” I hadn’t just fallen down this rabbit hole: I saw that hole in the distance and ran full tilt at it . . .

Fascinating facts abound too, such as the etymologies of juggernaut (from Hindi Jagannāth ‘lord of the world’, a name for Vishnu) and salary (ultimately ‘salt-money’, since salt was once used as payment: hence worth their salt). I also learned why M-W uses its own pronunciation system instead of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Stamper says the proprietary key can cover more dialects in the same space: unlike the IPA, it is ‘accent agnostic’. It’s also, she concedes, ‘ridiculous’.

Her winsome style playfully blends the learned and the vernacular, the pop-cultural and the avowedly nerdy, sometimes in the space of two words, like epistemophilic dork or citational spackling. Her voice is genial and irreverent, as anyone familiar with her blog harm·less drudg·ery (which I wrote about in 2011) will know. I was won over well before the chapter on defining, at which point a KLF reference made it tran(s)cendental. Swoon.

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries is an exceptionally entertaining book that belongs on the shelf of anyone who loves words or wonders how we pin meanings to them. It captures what life must be like on the hushed editorial floor of Merriam-Webster, resolving some of that mystique I mentioned. It will deepen your appreciation for the glorious, impure mess that is English and for the language’s dedicated chroniclers – not guardians – the lexicographers.

Published by Pantheon Books, who kindly sent me a copy for review, Word by Word can be ordered from the usual outlets or your local bookstore. You can read Chapter 1 here, and in the Vox video below you can watch Stamper talk about lexicography, Sprachgefühl, and why English is like a child and a river:

13 Responses to Book review: ‘Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries’ by Kory Stamper

  1. Chips Mackinolty says:

    “Dictionaries occupy a unique cultural space straddling invisibility and authority.” Stan, you should trade mark this! It’s a beautiful summation.

  2. Will Skeat says:

    About that last bit of the video, re: the dots in the middle of the word – I am confused! The dots mark the places where one can break a word at the end of a line — but aren’t you supposed to break a word between syllables?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Words at the end of a line are, generally speaking, broken between syllables, but the vagaries of English spelling complicate things a bit: hence the punctus system often used. Merriam-Webster has a section on ‘End-of-Line Division‘ halfway down its Help page that explains it well.

  3. Chips Mackinolty says:

    @ Will Skeat, that might be the ideal, but different dictionaries, and different typesetting algorithms, have different rules and “solutions”. Not all work, as might be imagined. For a recent discussion see (and imagine the problems with long, unbroken, internet references such as this!)

    • Stan Carey says:

      A related problem I often come across in academic editing/proofreading is the combination of website references and justified spacing. ‘Ragged right’ tends to suit URLs much better.

  4. […] have dictionaries on the brain – more than usual – having just read and reviewed Kory Stamper’s book Word by Word. So it’s a good time […]

  5. […] Book review: ‘Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries’ by Kory Stamper […]

  6. […] Book review: ‘Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries’ by Kory Stamper […]

  7. […] From Stan Carey’s 3/21/17 review on his blog: […]

  8. […] better, it came with lexicographic expertise and sociolinguistic commentary, because the source was Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper, a writer and editor of dictionaries at […]

  9. […] occupy a peculiar space in culture, transfixed between invisibility and authority. But they are not equipped to be judgmental, they […]

  10. […] Stan Carey reviews the new book Word by Word:The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper. […]

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