A Lexicographical Bildungsroman


I have just finished the most amazing astonishing intriguing edifying profound intense book about the making of dictionaries I have ever read encountered. I want to tell all lovers of words — no, not just that select group (likely including many readers of Lingua Franca), but all users of words — in other words, everyone in the world — about it.

Is that so difficult? In this case, yes. It’s a book of a lifetime about a life in lexicography. And instead of being casually written, as for example these Lingua Franca posts often are, it is written with such care that it shames me into looking dispassionately to find the exact precise objective-yet-passionate words to write about it.

The book is best described as a lexicographical bildungsroman. (What’s that? Merriam-Webster Online says a bildungsroman is “a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character.” Instead of “novel,” make it an autobiography, insert “and lexicographical” before “growth,” and you have it: the story of a life in lexicography.)

The life is Kory Stamper’s. She has worked as a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster for nearly two decades. The book (her first, published this spring by Penguin Random House) is Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.

Word by word, this book knocks me over. On the editorial floor of Merriam-Webster, for years she would spend her working days in the the present-day equivalent of a medieval scriptorium, reviewing word by word, detail by detail, entries for Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate or Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged. (Nowadays she does the same, mostly from home.) “You must … be temperamentally suited to sitting in near silence for eight hours a day and working entirely alone,” she explains.

Chapter by chapter she presents passionate, precise, good-humored (and bad-humored) descriptions of every stage of the process that goes into making an entry — and of her feelings about the words at hand and the people who use them. For each of the 15 chapters, the title begins with an exemplary word, followed by an explanation, as in:

BUT: On Grammar
SURFBOARD: On Defining
TAKE: On Small Words
BITCH: On Bad Words (and she doesn’t hold back from four-letter words when frustrated, as she often is)
POSH: On Etymology and Linguistic Originalism
NUCLEAR: On Pronunciation
MARRIAGE: On Authority and the Dictionary

The chapters have a message much like the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said … , but I tell you,” with an explanation of the true lexicographer’s way. She is kind enough, however, to offer her own self as an example again and again of the novice learning how to do it.

Along the way, ever attentive to words, she plants innumerable gems of sentences, like:

“We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but a better analogy is to think of English as a child.” (It’s worth the price of the book just to read the whole paragraph that explains this analogy and the others below.)

“Think of English as a river.”

All words are made-up.”

“Real defining is the stuff of philosophy and theology. … Lexicographers only get to do lexical defining.”

“The example sentence should be less interesting than the definition.”

“Lexicography is linguistic surgery.”

Kory, look what you made me do. Ordinarily I revise a Lingua Franca post about a dozen times to get it in decent shape. This time, however, WordPress tells me I have 34 revisions.

Well, it was worth it. But once you get your Pulitzer or whatever other prize your book deserves, please hurry back to work for a couple more decades so we can enjoy Volume II.

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