“Language is one of the few common experiences humanity has.”
So begins the Preface to Kory Stamper’s wonderful memoir, Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.
Hanging on Stamper’s personal narrative about how she came to be a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster and what that work is like is the entertaining history of the English words with which humans have recorded their knowledge, experience, beliefs and discoveries. This discussion of words also includes a discussion of linguistic prejudice, that attitude that self-appointed grammar police cop when someone doesn’t follow their* prescribed rules.
You’d be correct if you imagined that dictionary editors spend eight hours a day in silent study, but you’d be dead wrong if for a moment you thought that reading about it would be boring.
Stamper writes with attitude.
That attitude arises from the little thought any normal person gives to the writing of dictionaries – including most lexicographers before they take the job. Before the internet, high school graduates received a dictionary before going off to college. I still have my red, clothbound Merriam-Webster Collegiate, which Stamper claims “is one of the best-selling books in American history and may be second in sales only to the Bible.” (In a footnote following this claim, she admits that this is more likely for having been “one of the oldest continuously published desk dictionaries around,” not because there’s any hard data.)
The Collegiate is a desk dictionary, not the big fat one that people use as booster seats for visiting grandkids. That one – The Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged – is, as Stamper notes, obsolete the moment it rolls off the press. Because even though most of us who use a dictionary do so to check meaning, spelling and usage, a dictionary is, ultimately, an historical document. It’s a snapshot of the language as it was during the ten or more years during which the lexicographers in a dingy building in Springfield, Massachusetts worked to update it.
As Stamper makes clear with humor and great stories, English is not static. Words can’t be caged on a page. How people use language changes all the time. And the history of those changes offer a glimpse into the history of those who use those words.
Word By Word is not just a terrific book about words, but also an excellently written personal memoir that tells the story about The Secret Life of Dictionaries, proving that any subject can spawn a compelling narrative when well told.
 Stamper explains that the singular “their” actually dates back to the fourteenth century.
Deborah Lee Luskin is not ashamed to say that she owns about half a dozen English dictionaries – and regularly reads them.