Thursday, August 24, 2017

Review: Word by Word

Kory Stamper is a lexicographer. She spends her days defining words in the hallowed cubicles at Merriam-Webster Dictionary. With just those two sentences, you have either decided that this book is not for you or you are feeling a growing sense of glee. If you are in the second camp and you think learning more about the art and science of making a dictionary sounds fascinating, then you must read this book.

Word By Word is a book for a very specific kind of person. I would argue that it's precisely for the people who immediately lights up when Stamper starts discussing "sprachgefuhl," a German word that roughly translates to a "feeling for language." If you happen to have that quality, you will be thrilled and fascinated by Stamper's confession that the grammar you learned in school is somewhat useless for lexicographers and just how difficult it can be to write a definition.

Each chapter is organized by something that Stamper has dealt with during her career (irregardless, anyone?). In several, she emphatically states that the people who create the dictionary do not make words; they are merely the researchers who see and record how people are using words. But this does not mean that the choices that the lexicographers make don't have real stakes. She writes about the the backlash that the dictionary received after modifying their definitions for the words "nude" with regards to undergarments and "marriage" after the Supreme Court decision.

The triumph of this book is that Stamper has succeeded in writing specifically about the challenges that lexicographers face at work, as well as an overarching look at the importance of words and dictionaries as the home in which those words live. It's obvious to the reader and the author that it's a bit absurd for English speakers to trust a small group of socially awkward humans sitting at their cubicle day after day to be arbiters of an entire language. The cherry on top is that Kory Stamper is a delightfully funny writer and, as it turns out, working with words can sometimes be downright hilarious. This is a book I will definitely be buying, so I can page through it every time I need a reminder of the fun and insanity of the English language.

Word By Word
The Secret Life of Dictionaries
By Kory Stamper
Pantheon Books March 2017
301 pages
From the library


  1. I lit up when I read the first lines of your review, so I must have sprachegefuhl. :D I will definitely be on the lookout for this one.

    1. I thought you might! Let me know if you get the chance to read it.

  2. Haha, I bet you're right that most people know right away if they're interested in this book. I definitely feel some glee reading the description, so I'm particularly glad to hear you enjoyed it. Putting it on my to-read list :)

    1. You know how you sometimes read a book and feel like it must be written just for you? This is one of those!

  3. I just checked this one out of the library on Friday, and after reading your review, I cannot wait to read it. Language nerds unite!