By Dan Moren
September 30, 2019 10:05 AM PT
We Like: Word for Word
If you are a word nerd1 like me, the dictionary probably holds a special place in your heart. When I was growing up, we had a giant Webster’s dictionary with those little half-moon cutouts in the pages to let you quickly flip to each letter. It was the kind of massive thing that really deserves its own place of honor on one of those spinning lecterns and it held a sort of authoritative position in the house. Whenever I wanted to know the meaning of a word my librarian parents encouraged me to go haul it out and look it up for myself. Seem like a lot of work? Maybe, but it reinforced in me a lifelong love of words.
And, as a result of that love, one category of non-fiction that I always find myself delving into is books about words and language. Kory Stamper’s Word for Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries is the latest in a long, delightful line of works on my bookshelf about this ill-shapen, mixed-up glob that we call English: a language so ugly you can’t help but love it even as it frustrates the hell out of you.
Stamper focuses on one particular aspect of English: the dictionary. While she spends a little bit of time on the general history of English dictionaries, most of the book is about the procedures at one of the U.S.’s pre-eminent dictionary publishers, Merriam-Webster, where Stamper previously worked as an associate editor. She goes into everything from the trickiness of crafting definitions to how to deal with words that some might consider obscene to how lexicographers decide which words to add to the dictionary and when. Each chapter is illustrated with vignettes, many of them involving conversations with her colleagues, and embodied by a single word: “surfboard” for definitions, for example, or “irregardless” for the chapter on “wrong” words.
It’s a fascinating insight into these works that we often consider both ultimately authoritative and unbiased. Stamper’s writing is far from the kind of dry prose you might associate with the dictionary; she’s engaging and funny—I cannot count the number of times I laughed out loud and then had to read a passage to my wife by way of explanation—and, honestly, it made me step back and reconsider some of my preconceived notions about our beautiful mess of a language. And I learned more than a few things along the way, one of which is that the Germans (of course) have a term for an innate sense of words: sprachgefühl. You can bet that one’s going to come up at the dinner table.
The dictionary always had a way of seeming monolithic, as though it were passed down from on high like the ten commandments, but Word by Word not only lends insight into how the dictionary is constructed, but reminds you that it’s a work compiled by people—and things are rarely cut and dried when people are involved. So, fellow word nerds, go forth and pick up a copy. Your sprachgefühl will thank you.
- You might wonder if there’s a word for that-and there is! More than one! Choose from linguaphile or logophile, whatever floats the old boat. Me, I‘ll stick with “word nerd.” What can I say, I like the rhyming. ↩
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Mastodon at @firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him by email at email@example.com. His latest novel, the supernatural detective story All Souls Lost, is now available for pre-order.]