When you think of dictionaries, chances are good the ones that would come to mind are the Merriam-Webster Collegiate and the Oxford English Dictionary (as well as whatever comes up online). Did I get that right? Certainly, those are the two most commonly consulted by educated American readers. If you’re a curious sort, you might wonder how all the words and definitions find their way into the pages of those dictionaries. Well, wonder no more! The lexicographer Kory Stamper of Merriam-Webster, Inc., has written Word by Word, a delightfully profane and often hilarious book about grammar. It’s an account of how she and her colleagues work to update their dictionaries, not just the Collegiate but the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged as well (the successor to the old Webster’s Third New International Dictionary).
Stamper is passionate about her work. “The more I learned,” she writes, ” the more I fell in love with this wild, vibrant whore of a language.” Her book abounds with charming examples of the intensity she and other Merriam-Webster editors bring to their jobs. And no wonder: it’s clearly hard work.
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper (2017) 296 pages ★★★★★
Unless you’re already familiar with the ways and means of lexicography, you’ll be amazed at the extraordinary pains the Merriam-Webster staff sometimes takes simply to define a single word. “By the time a word is put in print either on the page or online, it’s generally been seen by a minimum of ten editors.” Stamper describes the process, step by step, in language so lively you’ll never think about the world of dictionaries as stuffy ever again. “What appears to be a straightforward word ends up being a linguistic fun house of doors that open into air and staircases that lead nowhere,” she writes. F
or example, at one point Stamper’s job was to revise the definition of “take.” That seemingly simple word, it turns out, means twenty different things. Sorting through all the citations set aside to illustrate those different definitions was a Herculean task. It required “a month of nonstop editorial work.” But when Stamper bragged (or complained) to a table-full of editors at a dinner about the length of time she’d invested in a single word, a lexicographer from the Oxford English Dictionary was amused: “‘I revised “run,” he said quietly, then smiled. ‘It took me nine months.'” Stamper explains: “Of course it [took nine months]. In the OED, “run” has over six hundred separate senses [definitions] . . .”
And yet language, especially English, changes far more quickly than lexicographers could ever possibly keep up, Stamper explains. “A dictionary is out of date the minute that it’s done.”
English is not a tidy and rational language
In an extended discussion of English grammar, Stamper will disabuse you of any lingering notion that ours is a tidy and rational language. With example after example, she demonstrates the sheer illogic of the rules of grammar. “[W]here do these rules come from, if not from actual use?” she asks. “Most of them are the personal peeves, codified into law, of dead white men of yore . . . Standard English as it is presented by grammarians and pedants is a dialect that is based on a mostly fictional, static, and Platonic ideal of usage.” (The italics are Stamper’s.)
Throughout her book, Stamper is free with profanity. For example, she drops the “f-bomb” 17 times. At one point she explains that the profanity is to make her come across as cooler than she is.
There are plenty of surprises in Word by Word. “As you go through the written record, you’ll find that Shakespeare used double negatives and Jane Austen used ‘ain’t.’ You’ll find that new and disputed coinages have come in and have not taken away from the language as it was used, but added to it; that words previously considered horrendous or ugly—words like ‘can’t’—are now unremarkable.”
For related reading
This title is featured on Good books about dictionaries, libraries, and language.
I’ve reviewed four other books about the English language and dictionaries:
- The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published by David Skinner (The famous dictionary that threw out the rules of grammar)
- Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer (A top copyeditor explains how to write clear English)
- Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (A peek inside the editorial process at The New Yorker)
- The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault (A refreshingly offbeat novel about creating a dictionary)
- The Liar’s Dictionary by Elly Williams (A hilarious novel about a dictionary)
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, on the Home Page.