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Staff Picks: Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries

Unless you’re studying for the National Spelling Bee, you wouldn’t want to read the dictionary cover to cover. But books about the dictionary can be pretty compelling. Don’t believe me? Check out “Word by Word” by Kory Stamper. Written by an editor at Merriam-Webster, “Word by Word” takes us through the strange, complicated, and occasionally hilarious process of documenting the English language.

Cover Word by Word 1Stamper gives readers a taste of the daily grind at Merriam-Webster. Dictionary editors (called lexicographers) pore over newspapers, magazines, and other publications, searching for new words or new uses of old words. This demands an extraordinary amount of concentration; lexicographers even pay attention to words like “a” and “the” (which have some surprisingly complex functions). When it comes time to write or edit the definitions, a lexicographer can wrestle with a single word for weeks, as seen in Stamper’s chapter on “take.”

Some of this stuff gets rather technical, but Stamper’s enthusiasm is contagious, and every page is full of fascinating trivia about dictionaries and language in general. Etymology (the study of word origins) is endlessly delightful in Stamper’s hands; I loved learning the histories of “pumpernickel” and “OK.” Stamper also exposes the flimsy foundations for some of the “rules” we all learn in English class. Is “irregardless” really all that bad? Maybe not.

Much of the material in “Word by Word” is inspired by Stamper’s correspondence with dictionary users. Some of this correspondence pertains to mundane or silly issues (like the origins of the word “wuss”), but other times, the dictionary finds itself caught in the culture wars. For example, after Merriam-Webster expanded their entry on “marriage” to acknowledge same-sex marriage, Stamper and her colleagues were flooded with angry letters. Stamper explains that the change was not meant as a political statement, the dictionary simply wanted to reflect the evolving usage of the word in the real world. But the episode is an interesting illustration of the power of language and the role a dictionary plays in society.

It’s well worth your time to understand how a dictionary comes to be, and “Word by Word” will be a wonderful guide. You can put it on hold through our catalog right now, and if you’re looking for an actual dictionary, we can help you with that, too!

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