Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

Book Review of Word by Word

Word By Word by Kory Stamper

“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[1]* 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.)

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate

I still have the 9th edition I took to college.

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even though most of us who use a dictionary do so to check meaning, spelling and usage, a dictionary is, ultimately, an historical document.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.

[1] Stamper explains that the singular “their” actually dates back to the fourteenth century.

alternate headshot

Deborah Lee Luskin is not ashamed to say that she owns about half a dozen English dictionaries – and regularly reads them.

“Fucking” is a Poor Intensifier

“Fucking” is a poor an intensifier in written non-fiction.

My objection is not one of prudishness but one of good usage. I don’t approve of using “very” as an intensifier, either (or really, or so). Saying something is “fucking unbelievable” is no better than “very unbelievable”; both lack imagination and weaken one’s prose. In the crowded blogosphere, prose with muscle is more likely to attract readers than flabby and/or overused intensifiers.

Readers depend on writers to rant with vivid language.

I think “fucking” has lost its vividness due to overuse. It’s lost its meaning and punch. Like love handles on hips, it’s flabby padding rather than taut flesh.

Lest I be written off as a member of the grammar police, I’m not. Language lives and changes with its users. Neologisms arrive (sexting, localvore) and antiquated words fade (mooncalf, quidnunc). Usage changes, too, as exemplified by the gender-neutral singular they.

Just as there’s a time and place for sex, there’s a time and a place for “fucking” in the text.

Certainly, it belongs when quoted as in, Luskin objects “to the current trend of using ‘fucking’ as an intensifier in written non-fiction.” You must use the word if you’re quoting someone else, and unlike on broadcast media, the word doesn’t have to be “bleeped” in print.

Another justified usage occurs when you’re writing fiction and it’s the language of your narrator or characters, in which case, let it rip! Some people say fucking as often as others say like, almost as a nervous tic.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of audience.

I’m sure that some of the writers who overuse “fucking” as their intensifier of choice have readers who don’t give it a second thought. But writers who want to reach an audience that includes people they don’t know, as well as people who might not agree with them, it’s better to state your ideas with clarity and precision. Personally, I want people to read what I write and object to what I say rather than to the language I’ve used.

Deborah Lee Luskin, M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin,
M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, essayist and educator. Her work can be found on Vermont Public Radio and on her website, where she blogs about her rural life in Living in Place and about middle age in The Middle Ages. Her award-winning novel, Into the Wilderness, is a love story about two sixty-somethings, set in Vermont in 1964.

Friday Fun – How Important is a Good Vocabulary?

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: We recently asked you what questions you’d like answered in our Friday Fun post. Today, we’re answering the following reader question:


JME5670V2smCROPJamie Wallace: I don’t think you have to read the Oxford English Dictionary cover to cover in order to be a great writer, but I do think that an ever-growing vocabulary is a writing asset that should not be overlooked. That said, some of the best writing uses the simplest language. E.B. White and Hemingway were masters of a minimalist style that was highly evocative despite using mostly run-of-the-mill words.

In the context of your wanting to take part in NaNoWriMo this year, I’d say that you shouldn’t worry about vocabulary at all. NaNoWriMo is about getting words on the page. Full stop. It’s not about artistry or craft; it’s about putting your butt in the chair and racking up word count. AFTER NaNoWriMo, however, you’re going to want to revise and edit what you’ve written. That’s the point to start looking at word choice and refining your writing, sentence by sentence.

LL HeadshotLee Laughlin: I do think having a broad vocabulary is important to being a successful writer. That said, different genres have different expectations for vocabulary. The best thing you can do is read heavily in the genre you wish to publish.  Read best sellers and read books with low rankings. This gives you an idea of what the audience expects.

I second Jamie, don’t worry about vocabulary for NaNo. Just write. Write early write often and oh yeah, write a lot. NaNo is about capturing the muse.

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson: I think it’s important to have a love for writing and reading, and by natural extension a love for words. You may not always have the right word at the tip of your tongue, but you can figure it out when you need to.

Anything goes in NaNo, including how to spell! NaNo is all about getting the story out of your head and onto the page. The words can be fixed later.

Deborah Lee Luskin, M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin,
M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin: Vocabulary only matters if you want to be understood! And then it matters who you’re writing for.  The poet T.S. Eliot says it best in Little Giddings:

                                    And every phrase

And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,

Taking its place to support the others,

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,

An easy commerce of the old and the new,

The common word exact without vulgarity,

The formal word precise but not pedantic,

The complete consort dancing together)

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,

Every poem an epitaph.


The appropriateness and in-appropriateness of a writer’s words

As a writer, I don’t believe in censorship. Of any kind. I think that one of the most ridiculous episodes in our journalistic history was and continues to be when grown men and women broadcast the news saying things like “Today so and so was heard to say the “n-word”.

photo credit: Katie Tegtmeyer

The word is nigger. We all know that but we are pretending that we don’t hear it or that if we use a nickname it will go away.

But it won’t.

Mark Twain used it in his classic story of Tom Sawyer and because of that some people want his books banned. Was he trying to be disrespectful? No, he was using the language that was common for the day. The words nigger, just like cracker, and faggot have a place in our country’s history and to forget that is to deny our history of words and language.

Having said that, however, I do, with all my heart believe that words should always be used appropriately. The words nigger and cracker and faggot are considered disrespectful. I get that. I don’t use them in my daily speech and I counsel my children not to use them.

But if one of my characters wants to use them and it is appropriate for his or her scene, I’m going to use them in my writing.

A while back, I wrote an essay ranting against some improper medical treatment I had received. I was hurt. I was angry and I was in tremendous pain. My language was more than colorful in that little piece as I railed against my Doctor and the callousness of the medical establishment.

Not more than a few hours after it was posted, I received some email from my mother. “Wendy,” she admonished me, “a lady doesn’t use that kind of language.”

I was shocked that instead of seeing the piece for what it was, an angry outcry, all she could see was the few words that for her held offense. She was not seeing the forest for the few blighted trees.

Well, guess what? This lady writer does and will continue to use “that kind of language”. If, and here is the ever present caveat, if it is appropriate which in this case, I felt it was. The language was fine. There were not enough hot-red, angry words out there to describe my pain. I used the roughest, loudest, and most shocking language I could to convey my outrage. The essay said what I wanted it to say.

My mother wanted me to take the post down.

I did not.

For the most part, I tend to write of happy things, children, chickens, and life lessons. For the most part I’m a happy person. But if I am trying to convey a thought, a character, a scene – as a writer I’m going to use everything that’s available in my writer’s toolbox to make it work.

There is a time and a place for everything and my job as a writer is to find that time and place and to make it work in my writing. Often it’s not easy because some people (and there will always be some somewhere) are going to find offense, especially when you are trying to convey anger or other strong dark emotions.

Does it mean I back down? No, as long as I am confident in the appropriateness of my words for that situation, my words will stay.


About the Author:

A features writer, interviewer, and columnist, Wendy Thomas has been published in national magazines, newspapers, e-zines, and blogs.

Wendy discusses marketing writing at Savvy B2B Marketing.

Her current project is to blog about life living with 6 kids and a flock of chickens.