Word by Word: The secret life of dictionaries

Kory Stamper (Penguin Random House, 2018), 336pp, £12.99
ISBN 978 1 10 197026 3

Reviewed by Jill French

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In Word by Word: The secret life of dictionaries, Kory Stamper, a lexicographer, presents both a memoir and an unusual insight into the work of creating dictionaries.

The book starts where Kory’s love of English has led to her attending an interview for the position of editorial assistant at Merriam-Webster. She lands the role and begins an over 20-year career compiling dictionaries. Her training includes initial classes on style and defining which involve the lexicographer facing their own linguistic prejudices.

Most people take dictionaries for granted, perhaps imagining that they are created in a glamorous ancient library, but in fact the building where the work is carried out in Springfield, Maryland is described as Office Bland. It is made up of individual cubicles where the team work in isolation, quietly concentrating on their individual sections hour after hour, making dictionaries word by word.

Contrary to what might be expected, Kory explains that it is often the smallest words that are the most difficult to define, words like ‘is’, and these definitions can take nine months of work to arrive at.

The general view is that the dictionary is a guardian of the English language and defines what words mean but this prescriptivism is not at all how compiling dictionaries works. Instead, there is a descriptivist approach where language use is observed and as faithfully as possible described, the aim being for dictionaries to be records of language as it is used. This, and the dynamic nature of language, mean that once a dictionary is written the team immediately start on the next iteration. With each edition they check the need to amend definitions and introduce new words which have widespread, meaningful and sustained use.

During the eighteenth century, when to get a good education was expensive, having ‘good grammar’ was seen as a dividing line between the polite and educated and the vulgar and ignorant. To an extent this is an idea which persists and with it a politics and elitism which can be used to categorise and to divide. Kory notes that dialect can be seen as less than Standard English when in fact it is distinct from it, but that this can be taken as an indicator of difference and lead to elitism.

A lexicographer must tell the truth about how language is used rather than stating what it should be. With her entertaining style Kory describes language as like a child. ‘Sometimes English does exactly what we think it should; sometimes it goes places we don’t like and thrives there in spite of all our worrying.’

The origin of dictionaries and their evolution is explored which leads on to the present day and the difficulties for lexicographers of the dynamic nature of the internet, where sources can be changed. Corpora are identified as ways to counter this problem. Some words become the object of web campaigns to update their definitions and lexicographers are required to interact with the public.  

Finally, this is certainly not a book an editor needs as a reference but it is a book for word lovers and gives an authentic and entertaining look into the world of dictionaries which is enlightening.

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