Monday, April 3, 2017

Kory Stamper and Word by Word

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a reading and book signing for Kory Stamper's non-fiction book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.  The author, who lives near Philadelphia, held this event in the Parkway Central Library branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.  The event was rescheduled from March 14th, because that day the East Coast got a hefty dose of snow.  The fact that it was rescheduled was the only reason I could attend - I had already scheduled that day off of work, so I didn't have to worry about missing anything to make the trek to Philly.  I'm so glad that I attended, because the author was both entertaining and engaging, and answered lots of burning grammar and lexicography questions from the audience.

Do you read a dictionary, just hoping to find an error?  Do you love words, and bemoan the inclusion of such things as "phat" and "OMG" into modern dictionaries?  Do you enjoy learning about how the English language became what it is today, and considering where it may be going in the future?  If so, then you will love Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper. 

Throughout the text, the author sets out to accomplish four things: 1. Explain and explore lexicography to an audience who may very well be clueless, 2. Highlight the day-to-day tasks that culminate in new editions of Merriam-Webster dictionaries, and 3. Dive into the history of English language use in the past/present/future.  She is successful on all three counts, and peppers her writing with enough subtle and snarky humor to make even the most grammatically snobbish person crack a smile. 

While she explains lexicography, the author redresses the misconception that most of us have about dictionaries.  They are not bastions of the "right and proper" words that all English speakers must use.  In centuries past, dictionaries did serve that purpose to a certain extent, but such is not the case now.  The job of the lexicographer is to include words, which have to meet specific criteria, as they are used in our speech and writing currently.  He/she does not edit out a word because it may be offensive (curse words), morally reprehensible, or opined by some as slang or a non-word ("irregardless").  As long as the word meet the dictionary's basic criteria, it is eligible for inclusion.

Working at the Merriam-Webster office, nestled in Springfield, MA, reads like an introvert's dream come true.  There are great pains taken so that human interaction is kept to an absolute minimum.  Most correspondence takes place via email.  Casual notes or queries, like where to go for lunch, are passed from editor to editor via color-coded slips of paper.  Chatter and extraneous sounds are discouraged.  The intent is for the lexicographers to spend their brain power reviewing existing definitions which may need updating, considering new entries for a future dictionary, and responding to customer comments and questions.  The author spends chapters discussing exactly what it means to be a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, and delves into some of her more memorable, and memorably frustrating, experiences.  For example, during her month trying to edit the definition for the word "take", she had spent hours and hours making serious piles of notecards that she would need to refer to during a later stage of the defining process.  That night, the cleaning crew toppled over her work, forcing her to re-do everything. 

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries is divided into 14 chapters, as well as an epilogue, acknowledgments, notes, bibliography, and index.  Sprinkled throughout the text are footnotes, most of them giving shade like "No matter how book smart, we are all idiots at seventeen" (pg. 5), and the gem "Jimmy Carter spent his time in the U.S. Navy working on propulsion systems for nuclear submarines, acting as an engineering officer of a nuclear power plant, and actually being lowered into a nuclear reactor core that had melted down in order to dismantle it.  To my mind, he has earned the right to pronounce "nuclear" however he damned well pleases" (pg. 211).  There are other footnotes that are structured like dictionary definitions, giving the meaning(s) of a word as well as its pronunciation.  The Index alone is hilarious to read, just by the key words that the author uses to structure it.  But would you expect anything less from such a dictionary-minded person?

Overall, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries is a book that is not only informative about English words, grammar, and dictionaries.  It is deeply personal and speaks to the ways in which language intersects with other areas of our lives.  If you're someone like me, who had to memorize the prepositions (in alphabetical order, to the tune of "The Mexican Hat Dance") and can still recite it perfectly after 20 years, then you should read this book.  If you don't understand what all the fuss is about when it comes to grammar, then you should read this book.  It's the author's blend of info and hilarity that makes this a standout read.

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