Kory Stamper Word by WordI would think that I’m pretty well the ideal reader for this book. First off, I’m an editor who loves words. Second, I studied English language including word formation, descriptive vs. prescriptive language definition, etc. and scored my highest marks in that part of my degree. Third, I’ve actually worked on a dictionary!! (I worked editing example entries down to a single line-length for a dictionary of collocations which was sadly never published). So this book going behind the scenes at Merriam-Webster was a no-brainer both in terms of ordering it as soon as I knew about it, and reading it as soon as it arrived in the house. Fortunately, it lived up to the hype I created for it!

Kory Stamper – “Word by Word”

(7 April 2017)

A wonderful insight into exactly how a dictionary is produced, by someone who works in that world, with chapters concentrating on particular words or types of words (small words, it’s, bitch …) using that as a way to discuss particular areas of dictionary work – from ideas of correctness and grammar through dealing with bad language, editing examples, corpora and reflecting new societal usages to recording pronunciations.

The pronunciation side of things was something I’d never come across (although I did once have a job recording myself saying lots and lots of British first names for a website), and was absolutely fascinating. Did you know that the phonetic alphabet used to describe pronunciations is accent-neutral, so will help you to pronounce a word in your own accent, however, for example, you pronounce the “a” in bath?

I also enjoyed the chapter on “Bitch” looking at how “bad language “or obscene words are treated in a dictionary – essentially just like any other, recorded, with their usage. On this area, there is a fair amount of swearing in this book – I found it read as fresh and modern and enjoyed being exhorted to “read the goddamned front matter” of the dictionary but I know some people (any of my readers – I’m just interested?) have a problem with “bad” language in books. I think it’s used wisely and makes for an amusing read. Oh, and by the way – I do read the front matter in dictionaries – anyone else?

I of course highly enjoyed the chapters on corpora (collections of language used in the real world from a variety of sources and searchable electronically) and choosing examples – and how it matters much less in this era of e-books if you use a too-long example and “turn” a line (go over the printed line length) which could then turn a column, page or section.

I also loved, for example, finding out that the word “portmanteau” is itself a portmanteau word (delicious!), the defence of a dictionary needing to be descriptive, not prescriptive, even to the extent of including non-standard usages, and the stated use of singular “they” early on.

All great stuff and one of the most perfect matches between book and reader I’ve had for a long time.