WORD BY WORD by Kory Stamper


The Secret Life of Dictionaries
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Strange words and how to find them.

When Stamper first interviewed for a job at Merriam-Webster, she was excited. It was her dream job, and she got it. She was now a practicing lexicographer working at the oldest dictionary publisher in America. These “drudges at their desks” practiced a noble art, part creative process, part science. Her book is a “nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty, worm’s-eye view of lexicography.” Along with other “word nerds,” Stamper writes and edits dictionary definitions, thinks “deeply about adverbs, and slowly, inexorably” goes blind. To be successful, you must, first and foremost, possess something called sprachgefühl, or “a feeling for language.” If you don’t have it, you won’t last six months. Stamper goes into great detail describing the inner workings of how dictionaries come into being, with each chapter focusing on a specific task or topic. She provides a short history of grammar and then spends an entire chapter on how much lexicographers hate the word “irregardless.” The author also covers the history of dictionaries with a special shoutout to “His Cantankerousness,” Samuel Johnson, whose 1755 dictionary set the standard for all future dictionaries. “Bitch” discusses how crude, vulgar, and embarrassing words get included, and other chapters deal with defining, small words, etymology, and pronunciation. And then there’s the reading. After lexicographers answer all kinds of correspondence, they read everything, from magazines to TV dinner boxes to beer bottles and takeout menus. Stamper notes that the internet, which has put many dictionary publishers out of business, must be trolled for new words, too. She loves her work, and her enthusiasm adds a real zest to her tales of usage and the chase for words—e.g., “onymous,” “cromulent,” “vecturist,” and “dope slap.” Look them up.

Those aficionados who love words and the language or who are big-time Scrabble fans will love this book, while others will feel like they’re in over their heads.

Pub Date: March 14th, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-101-87094-5
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2017


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