Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Wordy Wednesday: Inside the Dictionary

Just published on March 14:
Word by Word by Kory Stamper.
Kory Stamper is a lexicographer, whose definitions and other work appear anonymously in the Merriam-Webster dictionaries. I already knew that outside of producing dictionary entries she writes in a delightful way because she has a very readable blog titled "Harmless Drudgery." Stamper's new book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries is every bit as enjoyable.

Each chapter of Word by Word focuses on a single word. Mostly, Stamper illustrates how the dictionary is created by examining the process that she and her colleagues followed when composing entry for that word. Here are a few of these chapter titles:

  • IRREGARDLESS: On Wrong Words
  • SURFBOARD: On Defining
  • TAKE: On Small Words
  • BITCH: On Bad Words
  • NUCLEAR: On Proununciation
  • MARRIAGE: On Authority and the Dictionary

  • In some cases, Stamper covers more than just the process of creating these entries. A lexicographer's job at Merriam-Webster also includes answering mail from critics and other members of the public, and her material includes quite a bit on the expectations expressed in the letters she and her colleagues have had to answer.

    Most interestingly, in the chapter titled "MARRIAGE" Stamper describes the furor that erupted at a certain point when opponents of gay marriage discovered that a few years earlier an edition of Merriam-Webster had expanded the definition of marriage to include marriage between members of the same sex. Over 500 angry emails filled her inbox, which made her quite desperate. She found consolation in humor -- her own, and that of Stephen Colbert, who covered the flap on his late-night show. For one thing, same-sex marriage was not yet legal in most states at the time, so the complainers were afraid that including same-sex marriage in the dictionary would influence the courts to legalize it. Thus in this chapter Stamper included a fascinating survey of how much the members of the Supreme Court use dictionaries in their decisions, of just what they use them for (mostly for confirming their already-made decisions), and of which editions and which dictionaries they use.

    One of the many things I learned from the book is the source of her blog's title "Harmless Drudgery." Samuel Johnson, one of the most famous dictionary writers ever, defined the word "lexicographer" as "a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge." Stamper continually describes the characteristics of the lexicographers who occupy the cubicles at Merriam-Webster. Their most frequent trait is that they are shy people who almost always maintain silence during their work day, and who do not wish for a lot of human contact: their life it seems is in the words they work with.

    Despite their shy and retiring personalities, the lexicographers find themselves working for a company that wants good publicity for their work: dictionaries. From the days of Noah Webster, whose heirs they feel they are, Merriam-Webster and other dictionary companies, says Stamper, have "had no problem setting themselves up as  an authority on life, the universe, and everything... because doing so ultimately sold books. Actual human lexicographers, on the other hand, would rather hide under their desks than be reckoned culture makers. In fact, and in spite of their publishing house's own marketing copy, they have been deliberately avoiding the cultural fray since at least the mid-nineteenth century." (p. 248)

    Stamper succeeds in making lexicographers, their work, and the history of dictionaries into a fascinating and sympathetic subject for her book -- it's a good read for anyone who likes words.

    This is Wordy Wednesday, but if I were observing Wordless Wednesday I would have posted this photo of late winter in Michigan.


    Kitchen Riffs said...

    I would have been happy with the picture for Wordless Wednesday, but am glad you decided to be wordy instead. :-) Really interesting read -- thanks.

    Jeanie said...

    I think you did both! I've read a review of this book elsewhere and it sounded good but now it sounds even better!