Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries – Kory Stamper

People bring up life changing books all the time. Sometimes I read with the hopes of encountering one, but I recognize that it is likely too late for a book to change me. Case in point, had I read Word by Word when I was younger I may have become a lexicographer, instead of opting to be a moron.

Imagine a world of word-pedantry that doesn’t involve being a horrible rapid perscriptivist. Kory Stamper’s book takes us through what it is like to be a lexicographer working for an actual publishing house working on dictionaries. I don’t think I have ever in my life seen myself so accurately described in a text by pure accident. Stamper describes a solemn place, full of people who like to mull at length over the exact right meaning of words as they encounter them, working in monastic silence, and piece by piece goes over what are the various aspects of working on what would ultimately become the dictionary. If this seems fascinating to you, read this book. If it doesn’t read it anyway, you may learn a thing or two about how experts think about words and how we categorize them.

A more cynical person would say that I read books like this to have my opinions validated. Maybe. I don’t give myself that much generosity – I think I read these books to see whether or not my opinions on languages are actually correct. And I am pretty please when I read these to find that they are. In this book the chapter on grammar alone felt like a justification for everything I have been telling people about the subject, and that no one ever wants to believe me on. It is something of a refreshing thing to have happen. At practically every turn of the page, I found myself shouting at the book “See?! That’s what I have been saying all along! Why doesn’t anyone ever believe me?”

That’s a pretty damn good feeling.

The book does end on a sad note, with the pretty strong implication (unless I misread something) that Stamper and many of her colleagues likely all lost their jobs to the great culling of print media. Still, there was a ‘fun while that lasted’ feeling even in that last section of the book. Were it not for that I would likely by brushing up my CV and sending it in.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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