Do you have strong feelings about the word “irregardless”? Have you ever tried to define the word “is”? This account of how dictionaries are made is for you word mavens.
Many of us take dictionaries for granted, and few may realize that the process of writing dictionaries is, in fact, as lively and dynamic as language itself. With sharp wit and irreverence, Kory Stamper cracks open the complex, obsessive world of lexicography, from the agonizing decisions about what to define and how to do it, to the knotty questions of usage in an ever-changing language. She explains why small words are the most difficult to define, how it can take nine months to define a single word, and how our biases about language and pronunciation can have tremendous social influence. And along the way, she reveals little-known surprises–for example, the fact that “OMG” was first used in a letter to Winston Churchill in 1917.
Word by Word brings to life the hallowed halls (and highly idiosyncratic cubicles) of Merriam-Webster, a startlingly rich world inhabited by quirky and erudite individuals who quietly shape the way we communicate.
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Booklist (December 1, 2016 (Vol. 113, No. 7))
Lexicography is not sexy, but in this spirited book about the science and art of making dictionaries, it is by turns amusing, frustrating, surprising, and above all, engrossing. Stamper is one of the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster, tasked with updating and creating dictionaries on an unforgiving editorial schedule. With wit and candor, she introduces us to the people behind the definitions, drinking terrible coffee made from orange foil packets as they labor away in near-total silence. It is perhaps unsurprising, given her line of work, that Stamper employs words with delightful precision in her writing. What is surprising is how enjoyable she makes reading about the drudgery of dictionary making. She illuminates the meaning and purpose of each portion of a dictionary entry and describes the pitfalls awaiting those who attempt to define an ever-changing language. Seen through Stamper’s eyes, a dictionary is not only a reference source, but also a living linguistic record and a window into history. Word by Word offers marvelous insight into the messy world behind the tidy definitions on the page.
Kirkus Reviews (January 1, 2017)
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.
About the Author
Kory Stamper is a lexicographer (that is, a writer and editor of dictionaries) at Merriam-Webster (the dictionary). She has written and appeared in the “Ask the Editor” video series at Merriam-Webster, and has traveled around the world giving talks and lectures on language and lexicography. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications, including The Washington Post, The Guardian and The New York Times. A medievalist by training, she knows a number of languages, most of them dead. She drinks more coffee and owns more dictionaries than is good for anyone.
Her website is www.korystamper.com.
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