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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Harry Bosch, trainee prescriptivist

February 22, 2017

The politics of English usage can show up anywhere. I was reading Michael Connelly’s 2010 crime novel The Reversal – gradually working my way through his back catalogue – when I found it depicting the spread of prescriptivism.

LAPD detective Harry Bosch and his 14-year-old daughter, Madeline, are at breakfast:

He checked his watch. It was time to go.

‘If you’re done playing with your food you can put your bowl in the sink. We have to get going.’

Finished, Dad. You should use the correct word.’

‘Sorry about that. Are you finished playing with your cereal?’

‘Yes.’

‘Good. Let’s go.’

Harry leaves Madeline with Sue Bambrough, her vice principal, for babysitting. He takes the opportunity to consult with the teacher:

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Prefixes and pearl clutchers

January 31, 2017

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about a prefix going independent and a slew of new insults.

Familiar as a prefix of negation, dis- can also tell us less obvious things about some of the words it modifies, as I explore in Don’t dis this prefix:

Dis- can shed light on a word’s history or etymology. You probably know the verb enthral in the sense captivate: to ‘make you so interested in or excited by something that you give it all your attention’. Adding the dis- prefix produces the rare word disenthral, a recent addition to our Open Dictionary. Disenthral means release – not from captivation but from captivity; it means ‘set free, liberate’. This is because enthral originally meant ‘hold in thrall’ quite literally – to enslave or hold captive – and disenthral contains and negates that earlier sense.

The post goes on to discuss how dis- broke free of its bound status to become the standalone verb dis or diss, meaning ‘disrespect’.

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Pearl clutchers, snowflakes, elites and SJWs examines some insults currently in vogue in political debates and online arguments. It begins with elite:

Though the word’s traditional meaning and connotations are positive – elite sportsperson, elite team of astronauts – nowadays it’s often used pejoratively, much as the derived words elitist and elitism usually are. Discussing elite as her word of the week, Nancy Friedman noted that while it is ‘ubiquitous and positive’ in branding, in political discourse it has ‘become a term of opprobrium’. Macmillan Dictionary’s entry presents the difference neatly.

You can read the whole thing for more on these weaponized words, and catch up on older posts in my Macmillan Dictionary archive.


Gender differences in conversational rituals

May 31, 2016

Here is a short clip of Deborah Tannen describing one way boys and girls express themselves differently:

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The problem with stigmatising slang and dialect in schools

May 4, 2016

I have an article in the Guardian this week in response to yet another school cracking down on students’ use of slang, regional dialect, and informal language. It’s in the Opinion section and is titled There’s nowt wrong with dialects, nothing broke ass about slang.

(Pretend there’s a hyphen in broke-ass.) Here’s an excerpt:

Standard English is a prestige dialect of huge social value. It’s important that students learn it. But the common belief that nonstandard means substandard is not just false but damaging, because it fosters prejudice and hostility. Young people can be taught formal English, and understand its great cultural utility, without being led to believe there’s something inferior or shameful about other varieties. . . .

People feel strongly about correctness in language, but this strength of feeling isn’t always matched by knowledge and tolerance. And because children are sensitive to how they’re perceived, stigmatising their everyday speech can be harmful. By educating them about linguistic diversity instead of proscribing it, we can empower students and deter misguided pedantry.

I’ve been reading the Guardian for as long as I can remember, so I’m glad to finally write something for it. (That split infinitive is a bonus.) The comments section is proving lively, as you’d expect, and I’m joining in here and there. Your thoughts are welcome at either location.

Update:

John E. McIntyre follows up at the Baltimore Sun, where he elaborates on ‘why schoolteachers’ policing of language is so misguided’.

toy story woody buzz meme - slang dialect linguistic diversity


Six videos about language

February 17, 2016

Rather than wait for the next linkfest to share these videos about language – there’s no telling when that would happen – I thought I’d bundle them all together. Most are bite-sized.

First up is Arika Okrent, whose book on conlangs has featured on Sentence first a few times. Her YouTube page has a growing selection of clips on various aspects of language, their charm enhanced by animation from Sean O’Neill. Here’s a recent one on animal sounds in different languages:

At The Ling Space, Moti Lieberman and team are prolific makers of entertaining videos aimed at people learning linguistics or interested in it. The Ling Space Tumblr blog supplements the videos with further discussion. This one is on the anatomy of the human voice:

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What should we call ‘Grammar Nazis’?

December 1, 2015

For some people the answer is in the question. Certainly Grammar Nazi is a popular and catchy phrase for referring to people who decry errors of grammar – or what they think are errors, or grammar – and who correct other people’s language unsolicited.

This looser, more general sense of nazi is well established in informal English. I’m not trying to outlaw it – that would make me a ‘nazi’ nazi. But personally I don’t like the term unless it’s used with heavy irony, because it cheapens and trivialises the horrific historical events that it blithely hijacks for rhetorical effect.

This comic by Kris Wilson slyly turns the tables:

cyanide and happiness - explosm - grammar nazi comic strip

Whatever about using Nazi hyperbolically in political contexts to refer to a non-actual-Nazi behaving in a way that may be construed as fascist, I can’t quite get my head around its casual use to refer to attitudes to language use. It has become conventional to the point where many people self-identify, even proudly, as a ‘grammar Nazi’.

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