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

March 21, 2017

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’.

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Yoke, thingamajig, doodad, and oojamaflip: meet the placeholders

July 26, 2013

I have a guest post up at A Thing About Words, the blog of Merriam-Webster Unabridged, on the curious subject of placeholder words: What sort of yoke is that thingamajig?

Placeholder words, as you’ll probably know or will have guessed from the title, refer to things (or people, places, etc.) whose name is unknown, forgotten, or unnecessary in the context.

After briefly discussing everyday examples such as thing and stuff, I move on to the “elaborate and ever-growing set” whose members include whatchacallit and thingamabob:

Ever-growing in two senses: not only are there more of these words every time I look, but their syllables clump like crystals. Thing produced thingum and thingummy, which grew into thingamabob and thingamajig. And then there’s oojah and oojamaflip, whatsit, veeblefetzer, doodad and doohickey, whatchacallit and whatchamacallit, the infix “-ma” perhaps motivated by symmetry or prosody. Some placeholder words have been around for centuries and boast myriad variations to be reshuffled on a whim and sent tumbling into colloquial conversation.

One of my favourite placeholders is, I think, peculiar to Ireland or at any rate Hiberno-English: yoke. It’s in popular use around Ireland.

[Yoke] can refer to an unspecified object (Give us that yoke) or an indescribable person (You’re an awful yoke). Both are informal, and the latter is gently or affectionately pejorative. You can hear it in this video of Dublin phrases. Yoke can even serve as a root, like thing in the permutations above, yielding words such as yokeamabob, yokeamajig, and thingamayoke. Yokey and yokibus also have some currency. Fun words, for sure, but like attention-grabbing outfits they’re probably best not overused.

For more detail on Hiberno-English yoke (including colourful examples from literature), along with various other placeholder curios such as Philip K. Dick’s kipple, click here for the full yoke.


harm•less drudg•ery: a new language blog

December 19, 2011

Lovers of words and languages will share my delight at the arrival of harm•less drudg•ery, a new language blog from Kory Stamper.

Kory is a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster; you might remember her from such videos as Slang, Octopus, and Christmas vs. Xmas (or from comments she has left on Sentence first). Her working day consists of “reading citations and trying to define words like ‘Monophysite’ and ‘bodice ripper.’”

In her introductory post, Kory writes with wit and insight about how she fell into the world of dictionaries, what lexicography is and is not, and how deep is her love of words (the phrase coke fiend appears in this context). But a love of words is not enough:

a love of words—even the unloved, unlovely bastard ones—does not guarantee that one will excel at, or even enjoy, lexicography. The two primary requirements for my job are a good grasp on the rules, requirements, and idioms of your target language, and a willingness to throw two-thirds of that out the window in the face of cold, hard facts about usage.

Go read, bookmark, subscribe.