by Michelle Waitzman
Most people take dictionaries for granted. They are available to us, at home or at school, from the time we first learn to read. Those of us who work with words rely on them regularly. But few of us spend much time thinking about how a dictionary is put together and kept up to date. It’s almost as though we expect them to spring into existence, fully formed. The truth is much more complicated—and fascinating.
Kory Stamper is a lexicographer,* and her book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at one of America’s best-known dictionary publishers: Merriam-Webster. Sound boring? It’s not! Stamper takes us on a memorable journey through the ways in which the English language has evolved (and continues to evolve), the lengths that lexicographers go to in order to describe current usage, and the backlash that can result from a seemingly innocuous definition.
Each of the book’s chapters is named for a word chosen to illustrate the topic of that chapter. For example, the “Irregardless” chapter is about words that many people argue are not “real” words at all; the “Take” chapter discusses the challenges of defining small words that are used in a multitude of ways; and the “Nuclear” chapter is about differences in pronunciation.
The author tells us how Merriam-Webster’s editorial staff approaches these kinds of issues, while also sharing plenty of anecdotes that bring to life the day-to-day experiences of lexicographers and the atmosphere of their unique work environment. I was surprised to find out, for example, that nobody on the editorial floor has a phone on their desk. This distraction-free atmosphere stands in stark contrast to the constant chatter and ringing phones of a typical open-plan office. It was also surprising to read that the lexicographers answer every piece of correspondence sent to Merriam-Webster by dictionary users. The answers are not crafted by a communications team or dealt with through form letters; they are written by individual lexicographers as a service to their readers and have been for decades.
Stamper doesn’t shy away from revealing her own personality quirks either. In fact, the book begins with a vivid description of her utter terror as she, sweating profusely, tries to make it through her initial job interview at Merriam-Webster. Stamper is the main character of her story—though she is joined by a diverse cast of colleagues—and she gives the book a personal touch that makes it much more fun to read than a straightforward book about how dictionaries are made might have been. It’s a combination of personal anecdote, opinion, and insightful observation about language that makes Word by Word a fascinating read.
Word by Word taught me a lot about language and lexicography. It opened my eyes to many of the nuances of words and their meanings that I hadn’t thought about before. Writers and editors often consider themselves “word nerds,” but after reading Stamper’s enlightening book, I feel like we take a back seat to the devoted lexicographers who spend their careers attempting to describe our constantly evolving language. Anyone who loves the English language will appreciate the careful examination it receives in this book.
* noun: ˌlek-sə-ˈkä-grə-fər, an author or editor of a dictionary.
Michelle Waitzman is a freelance non-fiction writer, editor, and proofreader in Toronto. Before she started editing, Michelle survived careers in TV production and corporate communications. Between these, she ran away to live in New Zealand for seven years.
This article was copy edited by Ellen Fleischer.