BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Secret Life of Dictionaries’



By Kory Stamper

Pantheon Books, $26, 320 pages

Of course, as rational creatures we know that dictionaries must be made by people, yet we don’t really think of them as human productions. They seem to be just there like works of nature or age-old monuments. Not that you notice dictionaries much until you need to look up the meaning of a word. When you do, you can be dismayed by the rigmarole that comes with it: the part of speech, its origins, the pronunciation expressed in weird letters, its various senses and notes about its history and usage. All this over one word? And not just one word: every word.

Dictionaries are made by lexicographers, including specialists in pronunciation, etymology and scientific vocabulary. Most labor at defining words by reading through thousands of citations. These are clippings from publications that show how a word is being used. There are also lots of editors checking and revising the definitions. All of them work for publishers who from time to time publish completely updated editions of their dictionary, including new words and recording changed meanings of old ones. Today they put their dictionaries online, which makes them bigger because, as Kory Stamper explains in “Word by Word The Secret Life of Dictionaries,” print dictionaries constrain lexicographers to keep things brief to keep down publication expenses — and, indeed, the heft of the volume. The internet has no such limitations.

Kory Stamper is a Merriam-Webster lexicographer. Her book is an engaging account of her own experience of being trained and then working for the company. She knits into this the history of the company, some history of English dictionaries, and, most importantly, explanations of how dictionaries are put together and the tangles that lexicographers have to unravel

Many details of dictionary compilation pique attention. One is that it’s the little words we use all the time — words like ‘as’ and ‘but’ — that are the hardest to define. The author worked for a month to define ‘take.’ That seems a long time, but she was outdone by a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary (OED): “I revised ‘run”’ he said quietly. “It took me nine months.”

The author explains that in the OED ‘run’ has over 600 entries. That’s because it’s an historical dictionary that chases a word back to its very first appearance in English, and follows it through every use and change of meaning, giving a dated quotation to illustrate each one. In contrast, Merriam-Webster’s and most other modern dictionaries are descriptive dictionaries that record how a word is being used now. They do not distinguish words in polite discourse from those in impolite discourse or slang. They simply record what gets written. This causes problems. We are so wedded to the idea that dictionaries are authoritative guardians ensuring the purity of the language that every new edition gets reviled for including new coinages, variant usages, and words that most people try not to say in front of their children. Kory Stamper’s description of the mail that poured in when the definition of marriage was rephrased to acknowledge contemporary reality is an extraordinary account of a cascade of anger.

Earlier dictionaries of English were often prescriptive, aiming to tell people which words to use. The long title of one early example compiled by Richard Mulcaster in 1582 claimed to “Entreateth Chefelie of the Right Writing of Our English Tung.” Usage manuals continue this sort of work today, but as Kory Stamper notes, English is always changing, and always wriggling away from those who try to corral it. She herself writes in the language of everyday educated middle-class discourse, though with a vocabulary that jolts it out of its characteristic blandness. Her words range from Old English ‘hrafnkell’ to the salty phrases and four-letter words that often do the best job of expressing meaning. She also uses words from different communities such as the Yiddish ‘schlemiel,’ and Californian ‘hella,’ and the British imports: ‘gobsmacked’ and ‘faff.’ They are all in the dictionary because they have become part of our language, some of them for a very long time. She dismisses a fuss over nothing as ‘foofaraw.’ Who knows where that came from? Not the dictionary. But thank goodness we have it.

Kory Stamper says that lexicographers need “something called “sprachgefhl,” a German word we have taken into English that means “a feeling for language.” She deploys her sprachgefhl on issues such as where the word ‘posh’ comes from, the origins of words considered ‘bad,’ the recent arrival of ‘bored of’ rather than ‘bored by’ or ‘bored with,’ and much, much more. Anyone who loves words or has opinions about them will have fun in this sandbox of a book.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.


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