Near the end of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, Kory Stamper says, “We don’t just want our words to have meaning, we want them to mean something, and the difference is palpable.” In her book, which is both memoir and exposition, Stamper finds the intersection of these two concepts.
Stamper tells the secrets of the lexicographers who work to bring us accurate and insightful dictionaries. She knows the inside scoop because this has been her career for a few decades. The study of words and dictionaries is absolutely her passion, and it shows. Plus, she’s irreverent and has a potty mouth. So, if that helps you manage a sometimes dull subject, then Stamper is the author for you.
She talks about how lexicographers are trained in the dictionary business. About what kind of research is necessary to develop an accurate and appropriate definition. There’s a whole chapter on writing dictionary pronunciations, given that English speakers have many dialects and accents. And she tells some priceless anecdotes about her family’s reactions to her lexicographer habits.
Stamper also discusses certain words in light of her topics. As such, some words are small and some innately controversial. Surprisingly, I found the chapter titled “BITCH: On Bad Words” to be a complete snoozer. And I am a regular user of “bad words.”
On the other hand, the last three chapters of the book were straight-up riveting.
NUCLEAR: On Pronunciation
NUDE: On Correspondence
MARRIAGE: On Authority and the Dictionary
In the first of the three, I learned that our 43rd President wasn’t wrong in his pronunciation of that word. Go figure. In the second, Stamper discusses what it’s like to develop an answer to a 21st-century style complaint from the public. And in the third, she faces all-out war from dictionary readers who opposed the changing definition of marriage. Stamper and her cohorts handled it with sincerity and aplomb.
As I said, parts of this book were boring as watching ink dry on the dictionary page. I’m guilty of skimming quite a few pages. However, given those last chapters, I’m glad I didn’t bail on Stamper. I’m glad to have learned more about lexicographers and their job. But, wow, I’m way too much of an extrovert to ever spend such focused time researching the minutiae of language.
If you’ve ever pulled the dictionary off the shelf and just read the page you randomly opened, this book is for you. If you subscribe to a “Word of the Day” email, or have a calendar with tear-off pages of vocabulary words, this is the book for you. You’ll learn plenty, and have quite a few laughs!