Word by word : the secret life of dictionaries
A raucous behind-the-scenes look at the life of the dictionary. Readers who never thought they would read that sentence will be entertainingly enlightened by Kory Stamper’s Word by Word: the Secret Life of Dictionaries. It’s a light-hearted yet sincere look at a job most people give little thought to. To many, the dictionary is a hallowed tome “of truth and wisdom as infallible as God.” To others, it’s something they have because adults should own a dictionary. Most people don’t realize that the dictionary is an organic document, constantly being reviewed, revised, and updated by “actual, living, awkward people.”
We are taught that language is a science, rigidly classifiable, when in fact it is an art, and a messy one at that: “Two lexicographers,” Stamper writes, “with the same training can look at the same sentence, refer to the same grammars, tear out the same amount of hair,” yet place a word in two different parts of speech. Modern English grammar, it turns out, is based on rules for Latin, another (ancient) language altogether. As a result, schoolchildren learn to grudge grammar because teachers insist that English be shoehorned into grammatical rules that don’t apply to it.
Stamper’s language isn’t nearly as bemusingly perplexing as the culture she describes. Her writing flourishes with an easy air, yet it’s candid and down to earth. Her anecdotes about language history and the process of defining words are educational and, perhaps as importantly, quite a bit of fun.
A dangerous book for schoolchildren, and should not be read by those who won’t end sentences with prepositions.
- The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary: A Memoir,
- The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus,
- Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages