Reviews

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

romina_g's review against another edition

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5.0

“Language is one of the few common experiences humanity has.”

“Word by Word” is at times a memoir, at times an instructional tome on the work of a lexicographer: a person who writes dictionaries.
It is, without question, one of the most interesting books that I’ve read in my lifetime — especially because before it, I wouldn’t have spared a thought for lexicography. Not only does it explain many fascinating things about the English language, but also it manages to be witty and fun.


Some things I learned while reading this book:
- How to (broadly) write a definition for a dictionary (surprisingly more complex than it seems)
- Many bizarre origins of common and not so common English words
- Plenty new vocabulary. You can tell Stamper has a way with language
- The small dots in between words that you find in dictionary entries are not syllable breaks! They are the places where you could split the word with a hyphen if you were to write it in two lines


Some of my favourite quotes:
“While everyone thinks they speak Standard English, no one natively speaks it: Standard English is itself a dialect based on a written ideal that we learn as we gain education. If we all spoke Standard English as a native dialect, then books on ´good grammar´ or ´proper English´ would be useless; we’d already know it.”
“People rarely think of English as a cumulative thing: they might be aware of new coinages that they don’t like, but they view those as recent incursions into the fixed territory they think of as “English,” which was, is, and shall be evermore.”


Above all, I think this book can change your perspective on grammar rules, etymological pedantry, and the language itself. A must read!

teachercap_e's review

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informative reflective slow-paced

3.5

dewey7962's review against another edition

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5.0

"The more I learned, the more I fell in love with this wild, vibrant whore of a language."

I laughed out loud far more times than I expected to reading this. Great book! And bonus: Kory taught me the difference between an initialism and an acronym. Learn something new every day!

jroberts3456's review against another edition

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5.0

The funniest book on dictionaries or lexicography that you will ever encounter. Stamper’s prose oozes wit from every syllable, and I quickly lost count of the number of times my family looked at me funny for guffawing at a particular phrase she uses. Also, my GOD, the footnotes. I never thought I would laugh harder at a footnote than I did at the footnote in Good Omens that explains British currency, but Stamper reduced me to tears of hilarity with a simple, 2 Word (“sense 2”) footnote. I’m giggling now as I write this.

Beyond that, Word By Word is a fascinating peak behind the curtains of modern dictionary production. She expounds upon both the history and purpose of dictionaries and the stories she tells are quite often enthralling—not just for word geeks or English nerds either, she spins a genuinely fascinating yarn that begs for absorption and rereading. It’s a stunner, folks, plain and simple.

stevendedalus's review against another edition

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4.0

An obvious labour of love that gets lost a bit in the weeds. It has that book-deal-from-social-media smell, with personal anecdotes and Twitter wars interspersing an interesting dive into a rare subject.

Stamper savours words, sprinkling esoteric and obscure words with obvious happiness, adding to the charismatic and personal appeal of her writing.

Explaining the construction, daily operations, and business side of dictionaries is really where the book shines, showing the hidden side of a daily object. Unfortunately, the padding at the end as the book gets into political struggles over gay marriage feels unnecessarily long and recapitulative of all the purpose-of-the-dictionary stuff that went before. You can practically hear the editor begging for extra pages.

But it's still a worthwhile corrective to grammar snobs and a love letter to the English language form a true paid expert who writes with charm. May have been better as a long-form article, but I don't really begrudge its wandering.

ckporier's review against another edition

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3.0

3-1/2 stars

bmwpalmer's review against another edition

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5.0

4.5 stars. If you are the kind of person who would enjoy reading a whole chapter about 'irregardless,' then this book is for you. If not, move along! This book is like [b:The Professor and the Madman|25019|The Professor and the Madman A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary|Simon Winchester|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1407110918s/25019.jpg|1628566] but more personal; like [b:Alphabet Juice|3573608|Alphabet Juice The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory|Roy Blount Jr.|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1438568371s/3573608.jpg|3615849] but more serious.

My only unfulfilled wish: I was hoping she'd write about 'nonplussed,' a word which is now used to mean one thing, as well as (in nonstandard English) the opposite of that thing, to the point that it is now completely meaningLESS to me. She doesn't address 'nonplussed,' but she does USE it (in the chapter entitled Posh). And in the nonstandard way! I am so confused by this word and I wish it would go away.

sshabein's review against another edition

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5.0

A book all about what goes into making the Merriam-Webster dictionary and lexicography is exactly the sort of nerdy, specific nonfiction book for me.

factandfables's review

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5.0

So, I haven't checked with the books I have back home, but I am fairly sure I don't actually own an English language dictionary. After reading this book, I am ready to go out and buy one tomorrow. And you should too - because if we are not buying dictionaries, no one will be around to define (and redefine) words because buying dictionaries is how these people will get paid. If you want to know why these people are important, read this book!

This book isn't perfect - it is a book about the complex task of defining the English language written by someone who spends their life doing this, and as such, it can be a little too technical at times.

It is however, fascinating for anyone who, like me, gets excited when learning about pockets of the world they know nothing about, and it was a really interesting glimpse into the ways that language can be tracked and defined.

One of my favorite books in a while



shelfimprovement's review against another edition

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4.0

This was a fun, fascinating read that gives you some insight into the process of making the Merriam Webster dictionary. Kory Stamper breaks down how decisions are made regarding what goes into the dictionary (it's descriptive, not prescriptive!) as well as how lexicographers write definitions and example phrases--mindful to avoid personal bias. She gets into the differences between lexicographers' and grammarians' views on the English language and examines how words evolve over time and across dialects. She talks about communication they receive, from people asking questions like where to buy something or people who think they invented a word or know best how it should be used.

Though she didn't get into whatever genius runs their goddamn Twitter account, which is what I want to be when I grow up.

Despite the fact it covers some hardcore word nerdery (or perhaps because of that), it's very informal and self-effacing in its tone. It's not stiff at all, as you might expect. Stamper writes in a conversational tone that suggests that her normal kind of conversation is a little quirky and hyper, laughing at her own weird jokes and and a learned ability to shrug off the people who don't find her funny. It's a little disorganized, though, bouncing around between ideas without a clear sense of structure. And I felt that some of the chapters were kind of skimmable--pronunciation isn't that interesting, even if it's important to dictionaries.

There's a lot of little tidbits that I loved from here, including her horror at people who say nonsense like "done work" (I'm looking at you, Philly and South Jersey, and your disdain for prepositions), but my favorite piece of trivia from this book, because I am never going to be mature ever, no matter how old I get: "Who thought that 'pumpernickel' was a good name for dark rye bread? Because when you trace the word back to its German origins, you find it means 'fart goblin.'"

Overall, a fun read for anyone who loves language.