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"Word by Word" is a Funny, Revealing Look at the Life of a Lexicographer

I wasn't sure what to expect from Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper's book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries (other than good stuff of some sort, since she's one of the sharpest thinkers on words). Turns out this book is an engrossing hybrid: part memoir, part Lexicography 101, part history of dictionaries, and part language demystifier. It's also a hilariously written book with oodles of sentences you'll want to stop and savor. If you have any interest in language, dictionary-making, or great writing, you'll dig this terrific book.

Even more than other lexicographer's memoirs, this is a book about humanizing lexicographers and their work, which is still taken for granted and/or totally misunderstood by most folks. Stamper emphasizes and demonstrates how a dictionary is not some holy book handed down by lexical gods but "…a human document, constantly being compiled, proofread, and updated by actual, living, awkward people."

Those people aren't exactly living a life of glamour and glory. Stamper's blog is called Harmless Drudgery, adapting Samuel Johnson's famous description of a lexicographer, and she doesn't spare the drudgy details in Word by Word. Being a lexicographer involves a full day of eyesight-wrecking reading with no desk phone and a paycheck that’s not exactly making it rain. But Stamper also makes this job seem like the greatest in the world, if you're willing to let go of your own language prejudices and peccadilloes. The scientific art of lexicography has no room for unsupported hokum. As Stamper memorably says, "Each word must be given equal treatment, even when you think the word that has come under your consideration is a foul turd that should be flushed from English."

Some of those flush-y feelings are difficult to purge, but a lexicographer must abandon language superstitions and horsepucky so they can see and label language as it actually is, not as a cranky curmudgeon or misinformed fifth grade teacher thinks it is. Warning: If you're attached to nonsense-based rules, you may shudder to learn you've been avoiding the lexical equivalent of the number 13. Stamper is brutally clear on one of the most popular myths: "One of the grammatical hallmarks of English is that you can stick a preposition at the end of a sentence without any deleterious effect whatsoever." But Stamper doesn't preach at the reader: she simply describes her own painstaking and painful learning process. This is a shrewd way to educate readers who believe in the lexical equivalent of a flat Earth.

Stamper does a fantastic job selling the difficulty of letting go of lexical prejudices, but she does an even better job of conveying the thrills of learning how to look at language carefully. Like scientists who discover insane wonders like time crystals or seven Earth-like planets, lexicographers always have something new to discover in English. The actual messy reality of English is much more interesting than any reductive, peevish ideas about it.

Stamper describes every aspect of lexicography, including defining terms, crafting example sentences, dealing with taboo words, answering often bizarre letters, plumbing the uncertain depths of etymology, and enjoying words such as hootamaganzy. The most revelatory section might be on how she learned to read in a new way. For lexicographers, there's no more reading for the sake of reading: there's only reading and marking. This constant scribbling, to note novel uses of words, makes reading less like strolling through the forest than cataloguing the trees (and the branches, squirrels, and ticks). A lexicographer can't get swept up in the content. Being a "close compulsive reader" also makes it difficult to read for fun outside work, because how can you let an amazing word choice go unmarked? The lexicographer's marking radar is always beeping. This type of reading sounds like a superpower that, once unleashed, is hard to control. As usual Stamper has an amusing comparison: "I imagine it's like being a podiatrist: after a while, the whole world is nothing but feet."

Many language books are insightful, but few are this witty and genuinely funny. Stamper isn't just an expert classifier and definer of words: she knows how to use "em better than just about all writers on language, twisting and turning sentences to perfect effect. Whether she's describing "a rubbery blob of drooling baby," "the Escher-esque logic of English," or the itty-bitty but significant difference between teeny and measly, her sentences have a vim and vigor that's impressive. Her comparisons are also memorable and quotable: "Lexicography moves so slowly that scientists classify it as a solid."

Lexicography is famously considered an art and science, but Stamper thinks of it as a craft, a term implying "care, repetitive work, apprenticeship, and practice." This book is a wonderful firsthand account of a lexicographical craftsperson who is master of another craft: writing. Few books about words—or anything else—are this well-written. Word by Word is a hilarious and enlightening high achievement.

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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday April 4th 2017, 8:42 AM
Comment by: Joyce S.
I plan to buy this book, it sounds delightful.

Your Twitter joke, I play by my own rules..., is why I don't play board games with my grandson anymore.

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