Word by Word by Kory Stamper
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
How do you define words and learn to pronounce them? Do you adhere to Standard English and, at the same time, reconcile it with the spoken English that you use every day? Kory Stamper is a lexicographer, a person who researches words and writes dictionaries, at Merriam-Webster. In Word by Word, she provides an unruffled and self-deprecating behind-the-scenes look at the work that the great Samuel Johnson defined as “a harmless drudge.”
Lexicographers must have “sprachgefühl,” a German word that indicates a feeling for language. It is “a slippery eel, the odd buzzing in your brain that tells you that ‘planting the lettuce’ and ‘planting misinformation’ are different uses of ‘plant,’ the eyetwitch that tells you that ‘plans to demo the store’ refers not to a friendly instructional stroll on how to shop but to a little exuberance with a sledgehammer.”
This enchanting look at words is so richly rewarding, so filled with insights and humor that the opening chapters alone are a bountiful reward for opening the covers. The remainder continues to lavish joy and discovery upon the reader’s senses. A brief discussion of the sentence “What can they do but try?” illuminates Stamper’s style and the difficulty in getting a definition right. It is necessary to know the word in its context and how it is used. “That damned ‘but’” is clearly a conjunction, she posits. She diagrams the sentence and substitutes other verbs for “try” to determine the “grammatical feel of the word.” Stamper consults her colleague Emily Brewster, “one of our current grammar mavens,” who replies that “but” is a preposition here. “We were both sure of our decisions until we began talking to each other, and now we’re dabbling with grammatical agnosticism, not sure of anything anymore.” She goes on to note that lexicographers shorten “parts of speech” to POS. “The abbreviation also stands for ‘piece of shit,’ and we find it a fitting, oddly comfortable double entendre.”
The concept of “Standard English” returns again and again. It is a “dialect that is based on a mostly fictional, static, and Platonic ideal of usage.” While it does allow for some change, “It doesn’t preserve English so much as pickle it.” We should “think of English as a child” and allow it to grow as we nourish it so that it may flourish. Of course, this is exactly what happens with the spoken language. It is constantly evolving as words appear and disappear.
Dictionaries have a way of standardizing and legitimizing words. Her chapter that provides a brief history of dictionaries is a delight. Richard Mulcaster’s 1582 Elementarie was merely a list of words that all educated men should know. Nathaniel Bailey’s An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721) was the first to truly define words, including slang and taboo words. Its title ran on for an additional 230 words! Incidentally, anyone can use “Webster’s” in the title of their dictionary now: the copyright was lost in the early 20th Century.
Read the chapter on “irregardless,” especially if you do not like that word and its use. Consider the use of “unthaw” to mean “to thaw,” or “inflammable” to mean “able to catch fire.” Stamper says that “no one disputes that these are words.” This leads into an interesting discussion of dialects and the impact they can have when spoken out of their home or comfort zone. Certain usage can brand one as uneducated in the wrong place. For example, “y’all” is part of my slow (I prefer measured) everyday speech because I grew up in the South. Some people find that funny; I just think we have more time to think before the words come out. “That we have to learn Standard English proves that it is not our native dialect,” Stamper writes. “But that’s okay: native English speakers actually speak multiple dialects of English and can usually switch between them depending on the circumstances. Dialects are great!” That digression brings her back to “irregardless” and a surprising revelation.
As one who spent my last career “forced” to read widely at work and write with particular attention to the various meanings of any given word (“shag” is a good example: seven very different meanings spring immediately to mind), I found this to be one of the most engaging and energizing books that I have read in a long time. Stamper’s prose is elegant, entertaining, and informative. If you are still reading this review, this book is certainly for you.