“The process of creating a dictionary is magical, frustrating, brain wrenching, mundane, transcendent. It is ultimately a show of love for a language that has been called unlovely and unlovable.”
Unlovable? Bah! English may be a strange, amorphous beast, but its quirkiness is its charm. In Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, captures this charm with verve and infectious enthusiasm. She brings to life a profession that, like many old trades, has been disrupted by the internet, in good ways and bad, yet still (I believe) remains vital. The institution of Merriam-Webster, Stamper writes, “has been around longer than Ford Motors, Betty Crocker, NASCAR, and thirty-three of the fifty American states. It’s more American than football (a British invention) and apple pie (ditto).”
Then again, as one of those people who keep a word list and lights up when I stumble upon a new fancy word, I’m an easy mark for a book like this. But I’ve also tried similar books written by word or dictionary people, and none of them hooked me like this one.
Tackling a different word or phrase with each chapter, Stamper addresses the typical ongoing lexicographical catfights—is “irregardless” a real word (technically), do people who write “it’s” instead of “its” deserve to die (no)—but also ventures into muddier terrain. How should “bad” words like “bitch” be handled? How to modernize the “nude” definition (in the pantyhose color sense) without racializing it? How to respond to the write-in campaign to eliminate the “same-sex” aspect of the “marriage” definition (because removing a word from the dictionary removes it from existence, apparently)?
The chapter on the word “take” is especially illuminating. You’d think the obscure ten-dollar words would require more work to nail down, but those are relatively easy; it’s the small words like “take” and “but” that are more demanding because they have so many different uses and senses, most of which native English speakers don’t even consider. I now have a vastly greater appreciation for the thousand and one small choices that go into every dictionary edition, and not only from the definers but the etymologists, word daters, pronunciation editors, and proofreaders who somehow corral the incorrigible, ever-expanding, often insensible English language into something approaching order.
But to do that, Stamper writes, requires all English speakers to think of the language not as a fortress to be defended within the paper walls of the dictionary, but as a child:
We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go; it heads right for the goddamned electrical sockets. We dress it in fancy clothes and tell it to behave, and it comes home with its underwear on its head and wearing someone else’s socks. As English grows, it lives its own life, and this is right and healthy. Sometimes English does exactly what we think it should; sometimes it goes places we don’t like and thrives there in spite of all our worrying. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like Latin; we can throw tantrums and start learning French instead. But we will never really be the boss of it. And that’s why it flourishes.
Hear, hear! And may dictionaries flourish along with it.