It turns out that dictionaries don’t just coalesce out of the antique dust in academic libraries, hardening on the shelves into compendia of immutable, authoritative Truth. Human beings write them.
There are actually real people who pay intense attention to words and their uses, who record and catalogue these uses, who spend hours and days and decades sifting these uses and carefully analysing them – a different shade of meaning here, a grammatical variation there – and who then try to encapsulate these analyses in succinct, helpful definitions, so that chumps like me can one day look them up and announce: “Well, according to The Dictionary…”
Real people do this for a living. One of them is Kory Stamper, who has written a beautiful, fascinating, witty, loving, irreverent book about the life of the lexicographer.
In Word By Word, she tells us about her career at Merriam-Webster and the colleagues who wrestle with pronunciation, etymology and how to socialise with the extroverts from marketing. She tells us about the silent frenzies of defining that rage inside their cubicles, about how lexicography is not just a job but a way of life. She shares the joys of handling correspondence from a polite and well-informed public (hashtag sarcasm), and she talks us through some of the words that have caused the most trouble and how they were eventually brought to book.
How do you handle racial bias in explaining the meaning of “nude”-coloured pantyhose? Where can you look to find out where “posh” really came from? How do you tease apart the many, many senses of “take” without losing your mind? What are and aren’t the essential features of a “surfboard”? What exactly was the problem with an old definition of “bitch”? And how do you convince an angry mob that “irregardless” is a word whether they like it or not?
She explains what dictionaries really do and busts myths about what they don’t do. And she unearths some gems from the history of lexicography, spanning Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster and what happens when rival dictionaries fall out.
And she makes it all such damned good fun.
I’m a copy editor who blogs about language, and I like to think of myself as a word nerd. But I’m not. Kory, who toils endlessly on the linguistic equivalent of the Human Genome Project, is the very definition of a word nerd.
You should look her up.
Full disclosure: I slightly know Kory, and she bought me a beer once. So, for all you know, I’m biased and possibly drunk. Here are some other reviews by proper people: Megan Garber (Atlantic), Stan Carey (Sentence First), Jennifer Schuessler (New York Times), Caitlin PenzeyMoog (AV Club), Stevie Godson (New York Journal of Books).