Kory Stamper. Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. New York: Pantheon, 2017. xiv + 302 pp. $26.95 hardcover.
The dictionary is in troubled and exciting times. That is, dictionaries of the English language are in troubled and exciting times, because there is no such thing as “the dictionary.” Funk & Wagnalls, Random House, and other publishers have either closed up shop or stopped making dictionaries. It seems likely that a third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (projected for the 2030s) will be available only online. Fifty-six years after the publication of Webster’s Third New International, a fourth edition is underway — but only online. In the closing pages of Word by Word, Kory Stamper notes that Merriam-Webster, where she works as a lexicographer, had just undertaken large-scale layoffs.
But amid financial difficulties, dictionaries of the English language are having a moment (“a time of excellence or conspicuousness”), due in large part to publishers’ efforts in social media: Word of the Year announcements (e.g., post-truth), lists of newly added words (e.g., twerk), and, most recently, Merriam-Webster’s pointedly political tweets (e.g., a definition of fact, corrections of Trumpian misspellings). Merriam-Webster has also been tracking words most frequently looked up (e.g., fascism). As the lexicographer James Sheidlower suggests, people in stressful times seek out authoritative answers: in alcohol, in the Bible, in a dictionary. But it’s just as plausible to think of the turn to the dictionary as resulting from skepticism about some other versions of authority. Looking up a word like fact might be, in its own quiet way, one form of resistance in the (so-called) post-truth era.
Word by Word is partly an account of a life dedicated to words, partly an introduction to the history of lexicography, partly an explanation of the many kinds of work that go into the making of a dictionary entry, and partly a meditation on the relationship between dictionaries and culture. The title suggests not only the one-word-after-another march of lexicography: Word by Word is elegantly organized by means of individual words. Irregardless, for instance, occasions a discussion of “wrong” words; posh, a discussion of etymologies, true and false. And then there’s Hrafnkell, a name from Icelandic saga: Stamper found her way to lexicography via a major in medieval studies. She describes her work at Merriam-Webster (whose only formal requirements are a college degree and English as a first language) as “less like a job and more like a calling,” “as much a creative process as a scientific one,” a process that relies heavily on sprachgefühl, a feel for language. Lexicography for Stamper is craft, not art, a matter of “care, repetitive work, apprenticeship, and practice.”
Much of that craft involves — shades of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King — sitting in silence, “reading and marking,” applying one’s sprachgefühl to books, popular magazines, scholarly journals, looking for and marking new words, new uses of words, regionalisms, and bits of dialect, all of which find their way into Merriam-Webster’s citation files. A lexicographer is always on the lookout for what might be needed: Stamper recounts photographing a cosmetics display to document a sense of the word nude. Creating a dictionary entry at Merriam-Webster is the work of various people, who define (following a style guide known as “the Black Books,” the work of W3’s editor Philip Gove), trace etymologies (relying on both learnedness and hunches), date first appearances in print, choose example sentences, and puzzle out pronunciations (e.g., “nucular”).
It’s instructive to ponder the difficulty of creating entries for small words, entries that few, if any, dictionary users are likely to consult. (One exception would be the poet Louis Zukofsky, whose Poem beginning “The” and much longer poem “A” are evidence of a lifetime thinking about and looking up small words.) Just one detail of the complications: as Stamper points out, the word a can function as article, adverb, and preposition. And here I begin to realize that despite my love of dictionaries and rabbit holes, I could likely never muster the patience to do this kind of work.
It’s instructive too to ponder what Stamper has to say about dictionaries and culture — that dictionaries reflect rather than foment culture change. How sobering to realize that as recently as 2004, bitch appeared in the Collegiate without a usage label, and that among the definitions of nude was this one: “of the color of a white person’s flesh.” (Both entries have been revised in the online dictionary.) Stamper writes in considerable detail about Merriam-Webster’s relationship with marriage. When some readers discovered that Merriam-Webster had added a subsense to its definition (“the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage”), hate mail and threats followed. More recently, other readers have complained that the word marriage now merits a single, gender-neutral definition. But the dictionary isn’t there yet. “Language,” Stamper writes, “always lags behind life.”
I have two criticisms of this book. One applies to its treatment of Standard English, which Stamper calls “a convenient fiction” or a dialect based on a “mostly fictional” ideal of usage. While Standard English may be a concept with blurred edges, beyond exact definition, it’s relatively easy for anyone at home in it to know it by ear or eye. It is, of course, a dialect in which Stamper and every other lexicographer is at home. I think that what Bryan Garner says holds true: “Standard English: without it, you won’t be taken seriously.” Like Geoffrey Pullum and Steven Pinker before her, Stamper is too quick to catch out prescriptivists (or pedants and peevers, as she sometimes calls them) in imagined errors. Yes, E. B. White cautions against certainly and uses the word himself in an essay. Gotcha? No, because White cautions against the overuse of the word. Here is what The Elements of Style says about certainly:
Used indiscriminately by some speakers, much as others use very, in an attempt to intensify any and every statement. A mannerism of this kind, bad in speech, is even worse in writing.And yes, David Foster Wallace uses literally to mean figuratively, but it’s not Wallace who makes the mistake; it’s a character in The Pale King. (As for Lynne Truss, whose errors are her own, informed prescriptivist opinion is against her.) I’m not sure what to make of Stamper’s arguments from the authority of past writers, arguments that seem strangely at odds with a recognition that language is always changing. Yes, Shakespeare used double negatives and Austen used ain’t and the possessive it’s. But so what? Try using them in a letter of application to Merriam-Webster and see how far you get.
A second criticism: Word by Word is rich in casual profanity that a reader might begin to find tiresome. (Stamper describes herself as “unrufflable” around taboo words.) Example sentences, Stamper says, are “a pain in the ass.” Words (in a remark from a colleague) are “stubborn little fuckers.” Among the things that are damned or goddamned in Word by Word: a coffeemaker, electrical sockets, a mockingbird, an English poet laureate, and the front matter of the dictionary. The goddamned front matter of the dictionary! (Holden Caulfield, are you listening?) I reached my limit on page 210, where Stamper describes the care with which readers write letters to Merriam-Webster: “This is a question sent to the dictionary, after all. This is serious shit.” Yes, it is, and I’m entirely comfortable reading, speaking, and writing profanities. (Goddamned right!) But there’s no need to loosen or lively up the presentation with so many of them.
No need, because the story Stamper tells is already lively and compelling in itself. Word by Word does for lexicography what Mary Norris’s Between You & Me does for copyediting: it makes visible the work, the worker, and the workplace. For anyone who cares about the evolving English language, Word by Word is necessary reading. And when you get to page 260, or even if you don’t, look up Emily Brewster’s Merriam-Webster entry for built-out. “I worked really, really hard on the definition,” Brewster tells Stamper, “but I’m sure no one has ever really looked at it.” Look at it and honor the lexicographer’s craft.
Thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
All OCA dictionary posts (Pinboard)
A review of Between You & Me
[The definition of “moment” is Merriam-Webster’s. About being at home in Standard English: it is often a home, not a first or only home. For informed responses to Lynne Truss, see Bryan Garner (in Garner on Language and Writing) and Louis Menand.]