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Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, 2017 by Kory Stamper

By Jody Bruner

February 29, 2024

Book Reviews

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, 2017 by Kory Stamper - wavelength_secret_life_of_dictionaries_blog_banner_240229
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, 2017 by Kory Stamper - wave-lime-green-1260x540-1
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, 2017 by Kory Stamper - wave-lime-green-1260x540-1

As human beings, we share common languages. But that’s not enough to communicate with each other. We also need a common understanding of the words we use, and that’s the job of a dictionary.

Dictionaries have been around since the end of the 18th century when English was becoming standardized. Before that, spelling and usage were flexible. The birth of dictionaries at this time also coincided with more sharply defined class distinctions; how you used language and grammar was a marker of your education and social status, and if you wanted to move up socially or economically you needed to learn proper usage. Early dictionaries instructed you how to use language to make a good impression.

Today, we still use dictionaries to help us understand what we hear and read, and to ensure we’re using and spelling words correctly. But today’s dictionaries, especially the Merriam Webster, are less concerned with telling you how to use English than in describing the way we use it.

In Word by Word, Merriam Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper describes how she sees English:

“We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but a better analogy is to think of English 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 in 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.”

If you’ve ever wondered how lexicographers tame the beast that is English I recommend this book. It’s smart, funny and illuminating. Yes, you’ll be reaching for your dictionary and appreciating it in a whole new way.

With every new edition of a dictionary, new words are added and definitions are updated. Stamper includes chapters on some of the most interesting words she’s encountered in her career. In one chapter, for example, she tracks the evolution of the colour “nude,” which used to mean beige (think the skin colour of a white person). However, if you’re shopping for nude lingerie or makeup today, you find many shades ranging from pale beige to deep browns.

Even though English is headstrong with a mind of its own, as business communicators we need to use standard English. If you want to get your message across clearly and change minds and hearts, it’s best to give your readers what they expect. So mind your grammar, spell correctly, and match your English to your audience so you make it easy for them to understand and take action.

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