Absolutely hilarious and endlessly informative, Word by Word is a pleasure to read–particularly if you love words!
Stamper, a lexicographer who works at Merriam Webster, talks about the nature of her job, the history and usage of dictionaries, and shares great anecdotes. It’s witty, nerdy fun, and written with a whole lot of passion for words and language. The behind-the-scenes tour of a dictionary definition is a fun peep behind the curtain of dictionary-making.
What I especially love about this book is how Stamper emphasizes that the role of the dictionary is to show us how language is actually used (with citations to prove it!). The dictionary is always evolving and being updated, reflecting the culture and the actual usage of phrases and words out in the world.
And English is a super-unruly language to wrangle with, as Stamper notes. The image of the English language as an incorrigible kid toddling home wearing someone else’s socks and its undies on its head is the best example of her vivid imagery, by the by.
On a personal level it was fun to see how many similarities there are between what a lexicographer does and what a library cataloger does. This quote, from the epilogue, really spoke to me:
Lexicography is as much a creative process as a scientific one, which means that good lexicography relies on the craft of the drudges at their desks. Lexicographers will frame their work as “an art and a science,” though we only throw that tired old coat over the bones of our work because it’s recognizable shorthand for saying that this thing–the act of creating a definition, sifting through pronunciations, conjuring Proto-Indo-European roots, ferreting out dates of first written use, rassling with language–isn’t just a matter of following a set of rules.
Stamper goes on to note that writing a dictionary entry is invisible work. No one ever considers that a person, an educated, experienced person, must sit down and craft a dictionary definition. She might as well be talking about a library catalog record. Or perhaps I flatter myself.
If you enjoy A.J. Jacobs’ books, you will probably find a lot to like in Stamper’s work. Her style is accessible yet deeply intelligent, and her love for her work comes through on every page. Language is a living, breathing, ever evolving thing, and lexicographers are there to keep track of it.
This is dumb, but I’m scared that Stamper will find this post and will judge my style and usage and word choice. 😦