Word by Word by Kory Stamper is a non-fiction book about dictionaries. Wait! Before you close out of this blog post, I promise you reading my review will be worth it, because this my friends, is a great book full of entertaining writing. Yes, a book with the subtitle of “The Secret Life of Dictionaries” may not interest some, but believe me, this read is well worth your time.
Stamper takes us through her experience of getting a job at the renowned dictionary-publisher Merriam-Webster, their various departments, the steps to getting out the latest edition of the dictionary, and other quirky little facts about this oft-forgotten industry. Of course we do get a few grammar lessons, but they are usually included to simply give context as to how the english language has evolved, so Stamper is careful to not get bogged down into too many complicated explanations. Another fun aspect to this book is the language-Stamper is obviously familiar with lots of lesser-known words, so she sprinkles them throughout her descriptions to keep us on our toes. My favourite examples include: ‘futzed’ and ‘peevers’. Another interesting fact that she drops is that the word ‘pumpernickel’, as in the type of bread, has its origins in the German language, and actually means ‘fart goblin’. You’re welcome!
Stamper’s experiences of navigating the political firestorm when references to same sex marriage were added into the new definition of the word ‘marriage’ is fascinating, and I must say I developed a newfound sense of awe and appreciation for lexicographers. Readers will also appreciate her and her colleague’s struggles with defining the word ‘nude’ after a particular buzzfeed video called out the existing dictionary definition.
By far, my favourite parts of this book included the correspondence between the public and the editors at the dictionary. Apparently, as incentive to purchase a dictionary in the first place, people can write in to the editors with word-related questions, and an editor MUST respond to you. Some of the complaints that Stamper included are priceless, especially when the questions have nothing to do with words or grammar. For instance, one of the first email queries they received was asking where to buy beans. When I read that, I immediately laughed out loud, but after thinking about it a bit more, I grew concerned for the human race as a whole.
Anywho, If you don’t like reading footnotes, this book may irritate you because there are lots of them. But if you’re interested in why the word ‘irregardless’ is actually a word, then you should definitely read this.
*Please note this post contains affiliate links, and if you choose to purchase the book through Amazon I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.