Review of “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries” by Kory Stamper

Delightfully humorous and informative, this look inside the making and constant revising of dictionaries will please a wide variety of readers, but especially those who love language.

Kory Stamper informs us that her employer, Merriam-Webster, is the oldest dictionary maker in America, dating unofficially back to 1806 with the publication of Noah Webster’s first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, and officially back to 1844, when the Merriam brothers bought the rights to Webster’s dictionary after his death.

She points out that most people give no thought to the dictionary they use: it merely is, like the universe. But behind the scenes, she wants you to know, there is in fact a great deal that goes into making a dictionary both authoritative and flexible.

This is not just a compendium of fun facts about words, although there are plenty of those, including anecdotes about former meanings and unusual etymologies. The author also offers insights into how the best “meaning” of a word is determined, and how that determination changes over time. What considerations go into it?

Noah Webster, in an 1816 letter, wrote that ‘the business of a lexicographer is to collect, define, and arrange, as far as possible, all the words that belong to a language.’”

Title page of Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language, circa 1830–1840

If you parse that sentence, you’ll see there’s quite a bit to take into account, not least of which is the word “belong.” Stamper writes:

“A word has to meet three criteria for entry into most general dictionaries. It needs first to have widespread use in print . . . A word also has to have a long shelf life. . . .the third requirement is that it has what we call ‘meaningful use’ – that is, whether the word is used with a meaning. [as opposed to being a nonsense word]”

But “meaning” isn’t the only concern of lexicographers, even if those other conditions are met. Usage is a very important aspect. To that end, those who work on dictionaries compile files and files (formerly by hand and now digitally) full of examples of usage of different words. Usage conveys a lot about meaning: tone, context, intention, cultural implications, formality or lack thereof, gender assumptions, customs, rules, and even social status.

Pronunciation matters too, and here one encounters determinative variables such as education, background, region of the country (or world), and again, social status. For example, does “new-kyoo-lur” versus “new-klee-ur” imply something about the background of the speaker? What about “ant” versus “AHHnt” for the name of your parent’s sister?

The next question for lexicographers is grammatical: a word’s part of speech is not as simple as it might seem. What about the simple phrase “you guys”? Is it singular or plural? What about other regionalisms like “youse”? Is “you” a synonym for that? Is “you all”?

Yet another concern arises for those who work on dictionaries. When does a “new” word move sufficiently past the fad stage and into general acceptance? [“The Week Magazine” issue of May 12, 2017 reported that Merriam-Webster announced it was adding “sheeple” to its official dictionary. A combination of “sheep” and “people,” the derogatory term is used to describe “people who are docile, compliant, or easily influenced.”]

Even words with “accepted” meanings change in different contexts and under new circumstances. Because of the internet, the speed of language metamorphosis has greatly increased; when should dictionaries take note? The bulk of a lexicographer’s work, Stamper says, is actually in reviewing existing entries and revising them.

To that end, lexicographers spend a lot of time reading. Reading what, you might ask? The many sources they consult may surprise you, and include popular books, academic books, literary books, newspapers, magazines, advertisements, and the ever-growing and vast world of the internet.

Then there are words that newly make an unexpected splash into the public domain, causing people to start googling the meaning in online dictionaries, requiring a rather immediate response by lexicographers.

Stamper wrote on her blog about the uproar that ensued after Trump’s use of the word “shithole” to describe certain countries. How to define it and whether to include it does not, she notes, present the same dilemma for lexicographers as for newspapers. As editors “stare down a presidential ‘shithole’ . . . .they are thinking of all the angry letters, the cancelled subscriptions, the phone calls.

Lexicographers, on the other hand, need to meet the desire of people to know what exactly that means. As she says in another blog post when commenting on all the new and bizarre morphemes from the political campaign, “. . . .we take delight in reporting what sorts of words people are looking up: when life gives you “bigly,” make bigly-ade.”

Still, Stamper says in her book, lexicographers need to figure out how to define “taboo” words “diplomatically.” And not even “taboo” words. She also points to words like “marriage” which can make definitions very dicey because of the political and religious convictions of those who use the dictionary. She writes: “If people think at all about lexicography, they think of it as a scientific enterprise. . . In the end, however, lexicography is as much a creative process as it is a scientific one.”

As you might imagine, much of the book deals with the intellectual war between the purists, or “prescriptivists” (who advocate adherence to the way English should be spoken) and the “descriptivists” (who claim language is “organic” and should reflect actual use). The author clearly is in the descriptivist camp. She defends the way English evolves and grows, in all of its messiness.

But she also wants you to know that all of this comes about as a result of lots of hard work and endless drudgery. Those who work on dictionaries are not only dedicated but obsessed with “getting it right.” They need to balance the “politically correct” and acceptable with what is actually used by real people.

Even so, Stamper may have it easier than foreign lexicographers, who have to debate whether or not to let English words defile their national lexicons.

She concludes:

“…it is the damnedest thing to spend your career in the company of this gorgeous, lascivious language. We don’t do the work for the money or prestige; we do it because English deserves careful attention and care.

. . . . . “English bounds onward, and we drudges will continue or chase after it, a little ragged for the rough terrain, perhaps, but ever tracking, eyes wide with quiet and reverence.”

Evaluation: This book gives one so much to think about! Who knew that something one takes for granted so much is so complicated and requires so much work? Stamper will change your perception of this much-used but mostly invisible book, and she makes it a great deal of fun in the process.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Pantheon Books, 2017


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7 Responses to Review of “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries” by Kory Stamper

  1. Mystica says:

    I think a book to be read slowly to be appreciated. Thanks for the review.

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    I need this book! I guess a sheeple is what we used to call a lemming.

  3. Mae says:

    You really captured the greatness of Stamper’s book! I loved it too, and have been a fan of her blog for a long time — I was reading it before the book came out. She’s also on twitter now, and this week wrote a really interesting article here:

    best… mae at

  4. I’m pretty sure I heard and interview with the author of this book not too long ago. It does sound like something I would enjoy. I’ve quite a few unusual dictionaries in my collection.

  5. Beth F says:

    A book for me!!!

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