In March 2017, Kory Stamper’s book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, was published to great and justified acclaim.
The book, a delightful inside look at the lessons she learned as a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, was a best book for both Publishers Weekly and Amazon. It was an Adult Crossover Nonfiction Plus choice for the Junior Library Guild, though with the “potentially sensitive areas” of “strong language, mild sexual themes.”
Asked how a book about dictionaries could have “mild sexual themes,” Stamper wrote via email: “The book just has strong language and no ‘mild sexual themes.’ Though there is that entire chapter on ‘bitch.’” Lexicographers, she explains, can’t shy away from words that some might find offensive.
Yesterday, in a phone interview (she had called me to ask about Word of the Year), I learned that Word by Word lacked a chapter — and one of the best at that. Her editor removed it from the book, she said, not because it was deficient but because it was so good. He marked a big X on the first page of the chapter and told her, “This is the first chapter of your next book.”
And what will that next book be?
It’s about words for colors, Stamper said, and the people who devised them. In the first part of the 20th century, stimulated by the war efforts of both world wars, scientists tried to determine precise and reliable standards for measuring and describing the colors of the spectrum. The wide-ranging book will deal with the lexicographical challenges of using words to describe colors. “For instance,” Stamper explains, “what’s the actual difference between scarlet, vermilion, cherry, and cerise if the best you can do in a one-line definition is ‘a moderate red’?” The book doesn’t have a publication date yet, but 2020 seems likely.
She left Merriam-Webster in March 2018 to concentrate on her writing and her new position as executive director of the Dictionary Society of North America. And she does have another book waiting patiently after this one — a novel that she has been working on for some 18 years. “It’s about family and identity,” she said.
I’m indebted to Kory because her book inspired me to try to match her brilliance and playfulness in my favorite review, written for Lingua Franca back in June 2017.
That’s one thing I’ll miss about our blog, the opportunity to seek out the stars of our profession. I’ll also miss the variety of language topics this blog has inspired me to cover these seven-plus years, like the loss of thou; Teflon and Velcro writers; selfie, a word for a whole generation; Edward Ruloff, the 19th century murderer-linguist; an error in the Latin inscribed on an arch at the University of California at Berkeley; David Barnhart’s Trumptionary; and zhouzh. What a trip!