Word by Word

{5/5} “Lexicographers spend a lifetime swimming through the English language in a way that no one else does; the very nature of lexicography demands it. English is a beautiful, bewildering language, and the deeper you dive into it, the more effort it takes to come up to the surface for air.”

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper, published in 2017

Stamper is a lexicographer, and in this book tells the story of her work at Merriam-Webster and the story of English dictionaries going back to 1604. She explains what dictionaries are and what they aren’t. She talks about letters and emails she’s received. She talks about etymology, pronunciation, and dialects.

She explains why the word “irregardless” is in the dictionary even though you think it shouldn’t be.

She talks about how lexicographers are sometimes surprised, like when the Harry Potter word “muggle” started to be used everywhere.

If you think the fact that the word “portmanteau” is a portmanteau is interesting, this is the book for you.

It’s beautifully written, funny, and fascinating.

Here’s what Stamper says about grammar rules: “The fact is that many of the things that are presented to us as rules are really just the of-the-moment preferences of people who have had the opportunity to get their opinions published and whose opinions end up being reinforced and repeated down through the ages as Truth.”

Here’s what she says about the idea that there’s a correct or standard English: “We think that we have the right to go through the photo album of English’s life and throw away the pictures that don’t make sense — blurred pictures, or snaps from that unfortunate stage when it was surly and uncooperative. But those deviations from the plumb line contain surprises and delights not just about English but about the world we live in.”

One more quotation, from an ad from around 1860: “A man who would know everything, or anything, as he ought to know, must own Webster’s large dictionary. It is a great light, and he that will not avail himself of it must walk in darkness.”

This is the 1st book I’ve read by Stamper.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 11th, 2020 at 7:55 pm and is filed under Reviews of books. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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