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

I'm just back from a FABULOUS time at the Dictionary Society of North America conference. Fabulous not just because it was hosted by the University of the West Indies in Barbados (wheeeeee!), but because dictionary people are just the best people. No offen{c/s}e academic linguists, cognitive scientists, parents of 9-year-olds, Scrabblers, Murphys, and other folk I'm apt to hang out with, but lexicographers (orig. AmE) have the edge.

I have (for a couple of years, part-time) been an actual English-dictionary lexicographer, for the Encarta World English Dictionary. (Among my job titles were "Americanizer", "Compiler", and "Specialist Lexicographer: Languages and linguistics".) I loved it. (I also loved that the publisher, Bloomsbury, sent me some random book with each payche{ck/que}. I got my best soup [orig. AmE] cookbook that way.)

But the job I REALLY wanted, the one that would have kept me out of academia, was a job with Merriam-Webster of Springfield, Massachusetts. Having finished my BA in Linguistics and Philosophy at a just-up-the-road university, I wrote to them in 1987 to ask if they might be hiring. They weren't. And so I had to go get two more degrees and (BrE-ish) move continents three times in order to follow my second-best option after lexicographer: becoming a lexicologist.

Kory Stamper was lucky. She came along a few years later when Merriam was hiring—and she got the job. And now she has written a wonderful, detailed,  funny book about life as a Merriam-Webster lexicographer: Word by Word: the secret life of dictionaries. The kind people at Pantheon sent me a review copy a few months ago, but I wasn't able to read the whole thing during term time/before my own book deadline had passed/before I had written my paper for the Dictionary Society.* So, I read it on the beach in Barbados. Maybe that can be something that makes Kory a tiny bit envious of me as a counter to my incredible envy of her job, since she wasn't at the conference this year. But getting to know her a bit from the book, I kind of suspect that Kory's not the lounging-in-the-hot-sun type.

Because I'm a bit late, you language-loving readers of mine may well have read other reviews of this book. They all said it was fantastic, right? Well, I'm not going to deviate from that line, because I honestly cannot. This is a great book for anyone who is interested in dictionaries and the people that make them. (And since I've already established that they're the best people, why wouldn't you be interested?)

Kory (I'm using her first name because we're Twitter-acquaintances) covers all aspects of being a lexicographer—from the mysterious coffee in orange foil to the threatening emails. But most importantly, and most richly, she covers what it is to define a word. How you capture the difference between a (orig. AmE) sex pot and a (orig. BrE?) sex kitten. How you define the (AmE) pantyhose/(BrE) tights sense of nude without sounding racist. And why it took one lexicographer nine months to revise the Oxford English Dictionary entry for run.

The lexicographer (and also the lexicologist's!) secret weapon is Sprachgefühl: an intuitive feeling for the nuances of language. This is something that comes more naturally to some than to others, but I think it can be grown in a person—to some extent, at least. Kory tells the story of her training in defining and shares the stories of other lexicographers who agree that experience counts in lexicography. She gives so many engaging examples of definitions-gone-wrong and definitions-gone-right that some of that experience will probably (orig. AmE) rub off on you.

I hope it does rub off, because I plan on assigning the chapter on defining (which cent{er/re}s on the example of surfboard) to my first-year students next year. Undoubtedly, there will be a few in need of a bit more Sprachgefühl.

The book gives insight into the history of dictionary publishing generally and American dictionary publishing (which is its own beast) particularly, the role dictionaries play in (American especially) society, and a sense of what it is like to be a working lexicographer (right down to the fear of [AmE] layoffs/[BrE] redundancies). It also makes you feel like you're in the presence of an extremely likeable person. So, I thank Kory for this book, and I encourage you to read it and buy it for the dictionary-lovers in your lives.

It seems to be published in North America only, but of course these days one can order anything anywhere. The ££ prices don't look bad. If you're more (or also) interested in the British lexicography scene, you might want to get your hands on another book, published a few months before Kory's: former OED editor John Simpson's The Word Detective. I've only read a few pages of it so far, but it seems very good too. Since I didn't get a review copy of that one (actual money was spent!), I will probably not (orig. AmE) get around to writing a formal review of it.



* If you're wondering what I talked about at the DSNA conference, it all got started with a blog post I wrote for Oxford Dictionaries a few years ago.  That was the start of me thinking about differences in the "dictionary cultures" of the UK and the US. My DSNA paper was about the differences in content and tone I found in historical advertising for Merriam-Webster and Oxford. When that becomes a published paper (or papers), I'll be sure to let you know. I cover aspects of it in chapter 8 of my book-to-be, which will be published next spring. You can be sure that I'll let you know about that (a. lot.) as the publication date nears. In the meantime, I want to thank the British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant program(me) for allowing me to travel to dictionary archives in the past year, and to the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funded the book project.

30 comments

  1. I've often seen it said here and on other language blogs that native speakers' intuitions about usage are unreliable. So how does Sprachgefühl differ from such intuitions?

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    1. It's knowing the questions to ask about a word, and being aware of slight variations in its usage. Lexicographers use citation files, not just intuition. You need to be able to look at thousands of uses of the word "take", for instance, and be sensitive to the cues that indicate differences and similarities of sense.

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    2. That makes sense, thank you

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    3. Wonderful post. Now I understand better why you were eager to join with me in creating the first Beng-English dictionary, a couple of decades ago. It was way more than a whim, or an exotic source of a grad student paycheck. You were a dictionary devotee from childhood! Alma Gottlieb [Sorry, I don't know how to have my name show up as anything but "Anonymous"!]

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  2. In my case, I've always benefited from having an immigrant father and a mother whose parents were both immigrants. Discussions in our family about word usage frequently reached at least hurricane level 2. Being Jewish didn't hurt.

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    1. Yes, exposure to other languages can be very good for the Sprachgefühl!

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  3. As a teacher of my own language to speakers of another, I frequently relied on an instant hunch when asked to explain a word, supply a substitute etc.

    These hunches have sometimes turned out to be misguided. And they're not always reliable in the technical sense — today's hunch may contradict yesterday's. Nevertheless, it's what the learner wants, and always fun. More often than not it actually helps. And even when it does't improve the learner's knowledge, it acts as a lubricant to the teacher-student interaction.

    Of course you could do damage shooting from the hip all the time. I rely on a different sort of introspection:
    • nagging at myself challenging whether that's really and consistently what my instinct says
    • keeping my ears open for relevant usage and pondering whether it's supportive contradictory evidence

    Another invaluable check is to read this blog and see what Lynne says!

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    1. David, I was recently talking about these on-the-spot situations one's students put one in, like when they ask "what's the difference between begrudge and resent?" My own thinking is that all you can do as a teacher is give some quick explanations and then hope the students take that desire to find out meaning with them as they go out and listen to English in the real world. Hope that makes sense!

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    2. I wasn't so admirably humble as you, Iain.

      In this particular case, I'd try to imagine myself using the words now — and in some cases also as I used them in the past. So, let's try...

      My immediate feeling is that

      • I use begrudge with a DIRECT OBJECT referring to the thing I don't wish to be enjoyed and an INDIRECT OBJECT referring to the person I don't wish to enjoy it.

      • I use resent with a DIRECT OBJECT referring to the situation or person provoking my annoyance.

      For now — I may think differently tomorrow — I feel pretty confident in these hunches. If a student was here I'd probably state them as fact.

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  4. "some of that experience will probably rub off on you"

    I note that Merriam-Webster doesn't cover this usage, but you haven't marked it up as BrE.

    Also, has any lexicographer exhibited enough Sprachgefűhl to cross-reference frottage?

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    1. Are you talking about "rub off"? MW definitely has that, but it's its own headword: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/rub%20off

      It's a common idiom in American English.

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  5. Americanizer. Love that word (especially the z in there). It brings several images to mind -- a guy with a ray gun that Americanizes everything it zaps. A pest control contractor who shows up in a hazmat suit and goggles and says "Hello there. I'm here to Americanize your place." Or maybe just a Hollywood producer in sun glasses and spray-on tan who flashes a too-bright-white smile and purrs "I'm the Americanizer for this way-too-French movie script. Let's get to work."

    There's something delightfully vulgar and over the top about it. Just the way I envision American English.

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    1. I think my real title was 'American to British editor'. You're not winning any friends by imagining me as vulgar! :)

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    2. Lynne, surely if your job title was 'American-to-British editor,' you would be a Britishiser and not an Americanizer?

      @Dick Hartzell: I couldn't agree more! You have absolutely summed up my own feelings about rampant American cultural imperialism!

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    3. You're right, I wrote backward(s).

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  6. Just typing up my notes from the conference, and I'm on Mark Canada's "Teaching Lexicography" talk. What students are bad at, he notes, is noticing parts of speech--they define all words as if they are nouns and don't notice the problem. They also misidentify non-meaningful word-parts as morphemes a lot. So, those are a couple of kinds of thing that you can be trained to be more sensitive to...

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  7. "They also misidentify non-meaningful word-parts as morphemes a lot"

    Could you clarify that for the non-linguists following please, Lynn? Personally, I think I know what morphemes are (but others may not), and I'm guessing you mean by "non-meaningful word parts" those parts of words which are non-morphemic? Perhaps an example or two? Thanks.

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  8. Oops! *Lynne*! Sorry (again).

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    1. E.g. a student who breaks 'syllable' into 'syll' and 'able'--but 'syll' isn't a morpheme (not meaningful) and 'able' here isn't the morpheme '-able'. But worse than that, I've had students who can't tell the difference between a syllable and a morpheme, break-ing e-ver-y mul-ti-syl-lab-ic word in-to man-y, and just get-ting luck-y that some of them are morph-eme-s. (whether they'd get that last non-syllabic one is anyone's guess)

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  9. Digression here about "fear of [AmE] layoffs/[BrE] redundancies".

    They don't really mean quite the same thing in BrE. "Redundancy" = to be [BrE]sacked/[AmE]fired because your work no longer needs to be done, the job no longer exists, rather than because you're incompetent, don't do as you are told, the boss doesn't like you etc.

    Strictly to be "Laid off" is to be suspended from work temporarily because there isn't enough work to do, a temporary redundancy, short-time working except that the short-time is zero, a sort of zero hours contract without any hours at all. It is on the basis that when work picks up again, you will be called back in.

    Each of these situations creates different legal rights, has to be conducted differently, has different legal consequences and can be expensive for your employer if they get it wrong.

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    1. @Dru:

      That's not how I use any of those terms.

      To me: "sacked"/"fired" implies that employment was terminated for cause (either wrongdoing or poor performance). "Made redundant"/"laid off" implies that employment was terminated without any fault on the part of the employee.

      Where employment is suspended rather than terminated, I would specify this explicitly (eg "temporary layoffs").

      I'm in my early 40s, grew up in the UK but live (and have spent most of my working career) on the US.

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    2. The usage I've described is also used by the UK government, ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) and the CAB (Citizen's Advice Bureau). So it looks as though there is a difference between the UK and US on this.

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    3. As a Canadian, I'd use these the same as vp above.
      "Laid off" -- permanent, not for cause; usually due to the economic situation of the company
      "Made redundant" -- let go because the job is no longer required. I know this in theory, but I haven't run across it in real life much
      "Let go" -- could mean any of the other causes listed
      "Fired/terminated/sacked" -- for cause (and sacked sounds very British; I'd understand it but wouldn't use it)

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    4. My use, UK, is also as vp. Fired/sacked means for cause. In my case, there was voluntary severance. I still had a job if I wanted one, but they were trying to cut manpower, so I could leave if I wanted to, and get a redundancy package and I was old enough to receive my company pension.

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    5. Could you discuss this issue at the redundant post? It's not quite in line with the comments policy here.

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    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    7. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    8. I've duly deleted my reply and submitted it for the redundant thread.

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  10. @Joel T. Luber

    Oh, yeah! Thanks. But not cross-referenced from rub, as far as I can see. Hope I didn't rub anyone up the wrong way with this one.

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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)