ATG Book of the Week: Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries

Title: Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries
Author: Kory Stamper
Hardcover: ISBN: 978-1101870945, $26.95
Imprint: New York: Pantheon, 2017

Do you have strong feelings about the word “irregardless”? Have you ever tried to define the word “is”? Brimming with intelligence and personality, this vastly entertaining account of how dictionaries are made is a must-read for word mavens.

Many of us take dictionaries for granted, and few may realize that the process of writing dictionaries is, in fact, as lively and dynamic as language itself. With sharp wit and irreverence, Kory Stamper cracks open the complex, obsessive world of lexicography, from the agonizing decisions about what to define and how to do it, to the knotty questions of usage in an ever-changing language. She explains why small words are the most difficult to define, how it can take nine months to define a single word, and how our biases about language and pronunciation can have tremendous social influence. And along the way, she reveals little-known surprises—for example, the fact that “OMG” was first used in a letter to Winston Churchill in 1917.

Word by Word brings to life the hallowed halls (and highly idiosyncratic cubicles) of Merriam-Webster, a startlingly rich world inhabited by quirky and erudite individuals who quietly shape the way we communicate. Certain to be a delight for all lovers of words, Stamper’s debut will make you laugh as much as it makes you appreciate the wonderful complexities and eccentricities of the English language.

 

Reviews

 

“As a writer, Kory Stamper can do anything with words: define them, split them, lump them, agglute them, and make them work for her every bit as ferociously and precisely as she works for them in her day job as a far from mild-mannered lexicographer at Merriam-Webster. You will never take a dictionary entry for granted again.”
Mary Norris, bestselling author of Between You & Me

 

“Delightful… Unforgettable… A gloriously (occasionally even uproariously) well written book.”
Stevie Godson, New York Journal of Books

 

“Excellent… [A] love letter to letters themselves… [A]n erudite and loving and occasionally profane history of the English language. Stamper [is] a wry and charming correspondent.”
Megan Garber, The Atlantic

 

“Charming…told in Stamper’s fresh and funny voice. Hungry word lovers will find this book a delicious, multicourse meal of word lore.”
—Library Journal (Starred Review)

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