REVIEW: Word by Word by Kory Stamper
“We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but a better analogy is to think of English as a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go: it heads right for the goddamned electrical sockets.”
With wit and irreverence, lexicographer Kory Stamper cracks open the obsessive world of dictionary writing, from the agonizing decisions about what to define and how to do it to the knotty questions of ever-changing word usage.
Filled with fun facts—for example, the first documented usage of “OMG” was in a letter to Winston Churchill—and Stamper’s own stories from the linguistic front lines (including how she became America’s foremost “irregardless” apologist, despite loathing the word), Word by Word is an endlessly entertaining look at the wonderful complexities and eccentricities of the English language.
From an early age Kory Stamper was in love with words and reading. And how awesome is it that she gets to work with them for a living? And read all day? Do not mess with women who read a lot and have excellent vocabularies. How many people would know the insult lickspittle to hurl at bullies in school? The pull and lure of words overcame her plans for medical school – Organic Chemistry, yeah, it’s a weeder course. But look, words brought her to medieval Icelandic family saga classes in college. Okay, wow. I’m impressed and curious about where you could actually study that in the US. The pronunciation exercises sound hilarious – hawk, hawk, hork, ack. Oooh – voiceless alveolar lateral fricatives.
I discovered that “nice” used to mean “lewd” and “stew” used to mean “whorehouse.” I hadn’t just fallen down this rabbit hole: I saw that hole in the distance and ran full tilt at it, throwing myself headlong into it. The more I learned, the more I fell in love with this wild, vibrant whore of a language.
But getting a job using this arcane and esoteric knowledge of Old English? That took a while before she could live up to (?) Samuel Johnson’s description of the job as “a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.” Then comes the fun of unlearning how to read (truly), being taught how to mark all the reading they do and how to determine what part of speech a word is. Is that verb transitive? Deciding is harder than it sounds.
Another important thing to learn is that dictionaries are “records of the language as it is used” and not as a test of grammar or endorsement of any words. Or politics. Or viewpoints. Lexicographers aren’t there to determine or decide what words are sanctioned or proper. They merely record what the rest of us are doing with words. And to do that, they have to read those words and the ways we, the great unwashed public, are slinging them around. Ah, bliss. A job that pays you to read. Welllll sorta. And sometimes listen as Stamper did one time to NPR after which she recorded “ho-bag.” Really.
Lexicographers also labor against the public’s illusion that there is one perfect version of the English language. There isn’t. And a great deal of “standard” grammar is because of a few people with clout announced what rules *they* wanted to follow and thought were “right” and somehow this has become enshrined and drummed into students in English language classes. English in the wild, real world is a fluid beast that lurks near dark alleys to mug other languages for their words, veers around like a drunk on a bender wearing roller skates and generally behaves any damn way it wants to.
She was often given the task of responding to irate emails hysterically shrieking about entries: why is it there or why isn’t it there? Or insert some question about another aspect of language that the screamer is sure will spell the doom of the English language entirely. The tirade about the shift in definition of “marriage” crashed her computer more than once. “Irregardless” is one that sets the peevers into a tizzy and the fact that it’s included “is evidence that English is going to hell, and you, Merriam-Webster, are skipping down the easy path, merrily swinging the handbasket.”
English is also full of dialects. North/South, social classes, ethnicities, and professions. This section includes a bit about Stamper’s own childhood as a white kid in a mainly minority school which gives her some insight into how dialects can polarize English speakers. Note – She recalls some descriptive words she heard in her youth which could be upsetting. But even Standard English is actually a dialect and one that few if any of us actually speak. Some words are now viewed differently (just what exactly is “nude” color?) or require an editor to try and see things from the viewpoint of a marginalized section of society when revising old definitions.
So I’m all ready to head up to Springfield and see if any jobs are open when she talks about her experience revising the word “take.” Come on, how hard can that be? Damn hard that’s what. Pulling out hair in frustration hard. Which is understandable once you think about it and all the idioms and ways it’s used. One month later – yes! – it was done. A visiting editor for the OED confessed that one word – run – had taken him nine months to revise. Hmmm, maybe this isn’t the job for me, after all.
There is so much I didn’t know about the history of dictionaries but it’s covered here. From the earliest ones mainly used for English as a second language, to ones designed to educate the educated, to slang and cant, to the dictionary wars of the 19th century. The Protestant Reformation and its push for people to read and understand the Scriptures lead to a push for literacy and – yes – dictionaries. And yes, the editors do get paid to sit and read everything from academic publications to People to what some would consider dreck – Twilight anyone?
And oh, how the internet has both aided editors in finding sources and dates as well as expanded almost beyond measure what they have time to actually read and check. Computer programs can do some things but it takes an editor in the trenches to catch minute shifts and changes. The variety of items editors use as sources can range from the usual reading matter to pictures of road signs, frozen TV dinner boxes, matchboxes, cat food bags (empty) and beer bottles (also, one presumes, empty).
Yikes I hadn’t even considered the audio stuff. An editor “remembers being in the hallway outside the pronunciation editor’s office one day and hearing from within the office a very measured voice say, as blandly as possible, “Motherfucker. Motherfucker. Motherfucker.” It was one of our old pronunciation editors, trying to get the intonation right for the audio file.”
Also watch for any wonderful words that are new to you. Cromulent! Realize that a good definition is accurate but also designed to be as boring as possible. People don’t reference a dictionary for sexy excitement. Or they shouldn’t find it if they do since editors scrutinize each entry to avoid double entendres or anything that could be seen as either a sex joke or fart joke. There are always going to be words that are viewed as horrifying, which anger readers or that people find insulting. No, just taking them out of the dictionary (not that this will happen) won’t suddenly make the word go away or stop people from using it.
Stamper has a great writing style: very humorous yet informative without being boring. Even the footnotes cracked me up and taught me interesting stuff. I totally agree on the awesomeness of
entomology etymology. It’s also nice to know that if you contact the editors (sometimes done in letters with great pomp and ceremony – “this is a question sent to the dictionary, after all: this is serious shit”), you will receive a reply. When I finished reading, I realized that as awesome as the job sounds – they pay you to sit and read! – it’s probably not for me. But rock on lexicographers – the world needs you. A-