Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper (Epub)


Ebook Info

  • Published: 2017
  • Number of pages: 320 pages
  • Format: Epub
  • File Size: 6.49 MB
  • Authors: Kory Stamper


Do you have strong feelings about the word “irregardless”? Have you ever tried to define the word “is”? Brimming with intelligence and personality, this vastly entertaining account of how dictionaries are made is a must-read for 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. Certain to be a delight for all lovers of words, Stamper’s debut will make you laugh as much as it makes you appreciate the wonderful complexities and eccentricities of the English language.

User’s Reviews

Amazon.com Review An Amazon Best Book of March 2017: “We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but a better analogy is to think of English as a child,” writes Kory Stamper in her witty and surprising new book, Word by Word. “As English grows, it lives its own life, and this is right and healthy. Sometimes English does exactly what we think it should; sometimes it goes places we don’t like and thrives there in spite of all our worrying. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like Latin; we can throw tantrums and start learning French instead. But we will never really be the boss of it. And that’s why it flourishes.” Word by Word is part memoir, part history of dictionaries – in particular, those published by Stamper’s employer, Merriam Webster. Language lovers (can we call them logophiles, Ms. Stamper?) will have a fine time in the author’s company as she discusses the unpredictable and uncontrollable ways of her mother tongue. The surprises come when she describes the difficulties of defining seemingly simple words like “nude” and “marriage.” Stamper and her fellow lexicographers work mostly in silence, but they can’t escape being drawn into our era’s vociferous political discourse. Along the way, there’s much pleasure to be had in Stamper’s down-to-earth, frequently ribald narrative style, which keeps Word by Word from feeling overly intellectual or highfalutin’. Readers will find a deeper understanding of how dictionaries are compiled, and a trove of amusing insights into definitions and derivations. “On fleek”? Invented by a 16-year-old YouTuber. Pumpernickel? Translates to “fartgoblin.” Posh? If you’re certain that term derives from English-Empire lingo for “port-out-starboard-home,” think again. While you might not choose to spend an entire month of your life writing a dictionary entry for “take,” Stamper conveys the delight, frustration, and satisfaction her vocation entails. She has that special “feeling for language” she calls sprachgefühl: “the odd buzzing in your brain that tells you that ‘planting the lettuce’ and ‘planting misinformation’ are different uses of ‘plant.’” “Word by Word” offers laymen a glimpse into a crack lexicographer’s mind, and it turns out to be – definitively – a very entertaining place indeed. –Sarah Harrison Smith, The Amazon Book Review Review “As a writer, Kory Stamper can do anything with words: define them, split them, lump them, agglute them, and make them work for her every bit as ferociously and precisely as she works for them in her day job as a far from mild-mannered lexicographer at Merriam-Webster. You will never take a dictionary entry for granted again.” —Mary Norris, bestselling author of Between You & Me “A love letter to letters themselves… A cheerful and thoughtful rebuke of the cult of the grammar scolds. Stamper [is] a wry and charming correspondent. Word by Word is, like a dictionary itself, a composite affair: It’s a memoir that is also an explanation of the work that writing a dictionary entails.” —Megan Garber, The Atlantic”An unlikely page-turner…Stamper displays a contagious enthusiasm for words…Illuminating.” —The New Yorker”Delightful… Informed, irreverent and witty…A gloriously (occasionally even uproariously) well written book, and unsurprisingly erudite. Do read [Word by Word].” —Stevie Godson, New York Journal of Books

Reviews from Amazon users, collected at the time the book is getting published on UniedVRG. It can be related to shiping or paper quality instead of the book content:

⭐ For many people, the dictionary is a relic once used by grandparents and is now, in its retirement, relegated to the dishonorable position of dust-covered doorstop. Lexicographers – those quiet, anti-social compilers of dictionaries – are, presumably, a thing of the past. Not so, proclaims Kory Stamper, longstanding lexicographer for Merriam-Webster. In this rousing debut that unveils the complicated craft of defining words and the science of unearthing the etymological origins of their meaning, Stamper proves the dictionary is a lexical reference that’s long been taken for granted.Stamper sets the tone in her opening chapter, giving readers a first taste of what’s to come: a candid portrayal of the ins and outs of lexicography, delivered with sharp wit and exactitude. Recalling the day she was hired by Merriam-Webster, Stamper invites readers to the hushed confines and inelegant cubicles of the “modest two-story brick building” in Springfield, Massachusetts where word mavens work, in some instances for months at a time, to extricate the definition, pronunciation, and etymological origin of individual words. Such work requires a reverence for the English language not found in the average person.”Lexicographers spend a lifetime swimming through the English language in a way that no one else does; the very nature of lexicography demands it. English is a beautiful, bewildering language, and the deeper you dive into it, the more effort it takes to come up to the surface for air.”Wading through the English language to pinpoint the perfect definition of a word requires a noiseless work environment. The “weird sort of monastic” devotion lexicographers give to the English language, and their hallowed approach to the daily challenges of providing the public with an up-to-date dictionary, lends itself to a work space that demands people speak in whispers and celebrate their lexical triumphs with silent fist pumps. How else, Stamper asks, could a lexicographer be expected to determine the difference between the words measly, small, and teensy?”There’s nothing worse than being just a syllable’s length away from the perfect, Platonic ideal of the definition for “measly,” being able to see it crouching in the shadows of your mind, only to have it skitter away when your co-worker begins a long and loud conversation that touches on the new coffee filters, his colonoscopy, and the chances that the Sox will go all the way this year.”Colonoscopies are just the beginning of Stamper’s comedic contributions. She blends sophistication with humor at every turn, making the act of reading about dictionaries an absolute delight. Stamper was drawn to the life of a lexicographer, she asserts, recounting an incident when she embarrassed her daughter in public:“Are you taking pictures for work again?”“Just one.”“Oh my God,” [my daughter] moaned, “can you ever just, like, live like a normal person?”“Hey, I didn’t choose the dictionary life – ”“Just stop – ”“ – the dictionary life – ”“MOM –”“ – chose me,” I finished, and she threw her head back and sighed in exasperation.Many of Stamper’s amusing asides are delivered as footnotes, such as her reaction to the 1721 edition of Nathaniel Bailey’s An [sic] Universal Etymological English Dictionary, whose subtitle goes on for another two hundred and twenty-two words and garners Stamper’s facetious remark: “They sure don’t title dictionaries like they used to.”facetious fuh-see-shuh s adj: 1: not meant to be taken seriously or literally 2: amusing; humorous 3: lacking serious intent; concerned with something nonessential, amusing, or frivolous.It stands to reason that a person who specializes in defining words would demonstrate an exemplary understanding of the English language, and Stamper more than proves herself a talented wordsmith. Her use of ten-dollar words is employed in a friendly manner. Some words are defined in the footnotes, while others remain undefined and will, fittingly, send many readers running to the dictionary. While the procedure for compiling defined words into a viable resource is fascinating, Word by Word would not be as entertaining were it not infused with Stamper’s snarky personality.The work of a lexicographer, however, requires that the person – rather, the lexicographer’s personality – be removed from the equation. “You must set aside your own linguistic and lexical prejudices about what makes a word worthy, beautiful, or right, to tell the truth about language,” Stamper explains, because writing definitions isn’t about making hard and fast rules for a word – as so many people are inclined to think – but rather, it’s an act of recording how words are being used in speech and, more importantly, in publications.The common misperception that lexicographers are the definitive authority on the English language – whose definitions and pronunciations of words are akin to law ordained by divine beings – has resulted in more than a few letters being sent by confused or outraged individuals to Merriam-Webster’s physical and digital inboxes. Perhaps the most compelling example of this concerns the 2003 release of the Eleventh Collegiate dictionary in which the word “marriage” was redefined to include the sub-sense (a secondary meaning of a word): “the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage.” This new sub-sense was added because in the late 1990’s, when revisions to the Collegiate Dictionary began, the issue of same-sex marriage was widely debated, prevalent not just in speech but also in nearly every major news publication.Six years after its publication, one person noticed the new sub-sense in the Eleventh Collegiate dictionary’s definition of “marriage,” took offense to it, and launched a fiery write-in campaign that inundated Stamper’s inbox with hundreds of complaints and accusations against Merriam-Webster, along with numerous threats to harm Stamper. These angry letter-writers maintained a strident adherence to the misconception that lexicographers somehow shape language, culture, and religion. Further, they failed to understand that the very act of writing about gay marriage (regardless of the vehemence they assigned to the idea of same-sex couples being legally wed) worked to create citational evidence of the word “marriage” being widely used in relation to gay couples. In other words, the efforts made by the appalled letter-writers indirectly worked to validate that the word “marriage” had, in fact, been due for a revisal of its definition to encompass its many usages.From dealing with irate letter-writers to spending months teasing out the proper definition of overly complicated words like “is” or “a,” the work of a lexicographer is thankless. Lexicographers don’t have their names assigned to the dictionaries on which they work tirelessly. And the English language, fluid in nature and ever changing, never stops demanding that dedicated word connoisseurs hunch over their desks and puzzle out the most effective definition to encapsulate a words new usage.”When the dictionary finally hits the market, there is no grand party or celebration. (Too loud, too social.) We’re already working on the next update to that dictionary, because language has moved on. There will never be a break. A dictionary is out of date the minute that it’s done.”Word by Word is a sublime romp through the secret life of dictionaries; a guaranteed rapturous read for word lovers, grammar fanatics, and linguists.

⭐ 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 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.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. For 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.”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.”If you love language, you’ll be enchanted by this brilliant and funny book.

⭐ One of the best reads I’ve had in a long, long time. Never knew lexicography could be so interesting – but a good storyteller with a wicked sense of humor helps. I’ve owned printed dictionaries before (even had a copy of the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica once) but seldom used them for jobs other than holding doors open. Now I really understand what they do and why one needs them. I now find myself far more discerning about exact usages and really love where this “mongrel” English language has been rummaging through history. I particularly like the sense of freedom I now have speaking “me” and feel liberated from the so-called “peeves of dead old white men”. You have to read the book to understand that last comment. It’s a wink to the author from me.

⭐ I heartily recommend this book; Kory is utterly hilarious, and there’s a lot of interesting background about language in there as well. I didn’t think it was possible to make lexicography as amusing as she did. She is a brilliant writer and a talented lexicographer who has managed to sum up both the transcendental joy in working with words and the moments of frustration (and occasional despair).This book is a distillation of all of the best parts of the job; it made me fiercely miss being a lexicographer, but it was 100% accurate.

⭐ This is a fascinating book by a Merriam-Webster lexicographer. Yet, to my dismay…according to my taste, experience and determination)…she often comes down too much on the liberal-permissive side of questions. E.g., she claims she used to dislike the word “irregardless,” but eventually had a kind of epiphany and now fully embraces it. Hmmm. She tells us that one legit. pronunciation of “nuclear” is “nucular.” As someone who has worked in broadcast radio and values ‘Standard American English”…No, no, I DON’T buy that. Come to think of it, she also accepts “Ebonics” as legitimate speech…yikes!!So, a fun book, but we OFTEN disagree…and I do have that radio education and experience, as well as more than twenty years as a medical professional…and–OFTEN–No Dice!!! Oh, I am ALSO a dialectician (and very much enjoy dialects), but this STILL does not excuse many “nonstandard” entries in this book (and in her company’s dictionary).Let me put this another way: As a “living thing,” I think a language must have SOME “fluidity,” and be accepted as undergoing a certain amount of change (and growth) over time, but–for me–Stamper goes WAY over the TOP!!!..and frankly, this baffles me. Her stance seems similar to that of folks who have accepted EXTREME “cultural relativism.” For a much more balanced approach, I recommend Garner’s books on proper English usage.

⭐ “We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but a better analogy is to think of English as a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go: it heads right for the go*****ed electrical sockets. We dress it in fancy clothes and tell it to behave, and it comes home with its underwear on its head and wearing someone else’s socks. As English grows, it lives its own life, and this is right and healthy. Sometimes English does exactly what we think it should; sometimes it goes places we don’t like and thrives there in spite of all our worrying. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like Latin; we can throw tantrums and start learning French instead. But we will never really be the boss of it. And that’s why it flourishes.”I’m sure my wife hates when I read books like this because I interrupt her every 3 minutes to read another amazing passage. If you are a lover of language, you will find a home in this book that you didn’t realize you were missing. She makes fools of “grammar nazis” and anyone who imagines that there is one correct way of speaking English while also reveling in the untold multitudes of rules that govern our mess of a language. It’s a sarcastic, endearing, and loving tribute to the English language and those who would seek to explain it.

⭐ This is a well-written, drily humorous book written by someone who loves words. For instance, the author tells the reader that sex and adventure are not why people consult a dictionary–that is what encyclopedias are for. Her understated wit, however, is only icing on the cake. I had no idea how complicated the editing of a dictionary could be or how many steps the publisher has to go through in order to produce a new edition. The best payoff to reading the book, however, is that I learned a bunch of new words, always defined in the book. The author taught me more words in one book than Patrick O’Brien ever did. Though not as exciting as an Aubrey/Maturin novel, Word by Word is an enjoyable read. I first heard about the book on A Way with Words, the NPR radio program. If you are a fan of that show (or should be), this is the book for you.

⭐ This is a fantastic book. Since fantastic-ness is subjective, let me clarify.This book is technical enough to give a great feel for the daily work of lexicography. It assumes you have some experience engaging with grammar and usage, but it doesn’t overwhelm you with specialized terminology. It assumes that you are fascinated by the concept of dictionary making and accordingly want to learn its finer points. And it delivers amply on the exploration of finer points, with anecdotes and introvert humor and etymologies.Each chapter focuses on some element of lexicography: writing definitions, providing example sentences, dating first in-print use of words, updating definitions to match modern usage, etc. And in each chapter, a specific word is used to illustrate the process discussed.Among the most powerful: “Bitch” (on the challenges of treating offensive language in dictionaries), “Nude” (on the revising of outmoded [sometimes culturally problematic] language in definitions), and “Marriage” (on dictionaries as record of language in use).Overall, just a great summer read to satisfy my inner word nerd.Similar favorites: “Confessions of a Comma Queen” by Mary Norris and “A World without Whom” by Emmy J. Favilla.

⭐ Without rules, what’s a rebel to do?? Rules of grammar, in this case (but the question could apply in any context). I love words.I enjoy playing with words. And I get a kick out of plays on words. Yet, I’ve always felt strapped by my self-imposed anal compulsion to stick to and enforce the rules. Now, at last, an authoritative source has set me free! (Why do I need an authoritative source to begin with? Well, that’s a whole nother story. Or maybe even two nother stories.) According to author Kory Stamper, there’s no logical basis for a rule that says it’s wrong to wantonly split an infinitive. Even more startling, I can even pick any preposition I like to end a sentence with! And, as if that weren’t enough, its historically and grammatically consistent to drop the apostrophe from the “it-is” contraction and to put one in it’s possessive.So, let freedom wring all the creativity it can muster out of those words!

⭐ What an exquisite and delightful book. This is an in-depth look inside the creation of a dictionary. Ms Stamper’ work explicates how and why a dictionary is necessary and invaluable reference to/of/about communication. She describes the intense and professional search for just the right phrase to accurately define a word, just the right citation to showcase the definition, and just the right etymology to explain the origin and evolution of a word. Her writing is clever, amusing and entertaining. I have long loved dictionaries, but Ms Stamper has now given me reason to love the lexicographers who write them. She provides insight into the mechanics and craft of dictionary writing which is precious and lovable. It makes any logophile want to be there, to be part of the process, part of the creation.My own favorite part of a dictionary has always been the etymology. But Ms Stamper has given me new appreciation for the definitions, the pronounciations, the citations, the dating, and especially the art of succinctly turning a phrase to get that connotation just right. She makes you want to sit beside her and watch her create her art.Ms Stamper makes writing a dictionary sound like fun.


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