Sunday, June 18, 2017

Book Review - Word By Word

One hundred twenty eight pages into Kory Stamper’s winning book Word by Word a footnote is dropped defining “desert” in the sense (definition) of “just deserts.” Reading this passage before bed, I wondered if I was letting my eyes droop - was this some inside joke? Did Stamper intentionally misspell “desserts” to see if readers were paying attention? Did this slip past the book’s editor? Was I missing something? Of course, I had the luxury of typing “just deserts” into Google and discovered that this idiom, which means “getting what one deserves,” dates to the 1300s and has retained its unconventional spelling even in modern day. Lesson learned. And I suspect that the Venn diagram of people who are drawn to reading about how dictionaries are produced, what lexicographers do, and how challenging a job it is to simply define a word (see above) and are inclined to look up terms like “just deserts” while reading Word by Word is a near complete circle. 

Stamper, a lexicographer (“writer of dictionaries”) with Merriam-Webster, is a wonderful guide for those who love the English language. There is, as expected, a liberal sprinkling of fifty-cent words like defenestration and foofaraw, but Kemper also leavens her writing with equal good humor and the strategically placed swear word. Although she is at pains to lament her (and her colleagues’) general introversion, she is a sharp wit whose writing leaps off the page. To take one example, Stamper recounts a disagreement she had with a co-worker regarding the definition of the word “outershell.” She had defined the word as “a protective covering.” Her co-worker edited it to read “a protective outer covering.” She protested - you do not use the word to define the word and besides, by using “covering” the implication was clear that one thing was outside the other. But, he protested, the word being defined is not “outer” but “outershell,” so the “don’t use a word to define a word” rule did not apply. Her response:

I was perturbed. “Covering,” to me, already conveys outside-ness, not inside-ness. It is covering something; there is something inside it; it is outside the thing it is covering. Q.E. Motherfucking D. (emphasis in the original)

I mean, how great is that? At another turn, she laments the cottage industry of amateur lexicographers who are trying their hand at defining words as they come into popular use. In a discussion of the word “hella,” she poo poos a t-shirt with the word and several definitions (“an excessive amount,” “large quantity,” “more than above what is necessary”) by asking rhetorically, “Dude, do you even English?” Here, the amateur was too-cute-by-half and should have stuck to hella’s colloquial usage as “very” or “extremely.” (“This is a hella good book review, Scary Lawyer Guy.” “Thanks, reader.”)

The book can feel dense at times (I got a bit lost in the chapter on phonetic pronunciation, and the granular detail on different squiggly lines used in the editorial process still eludes me) but I suspect that the self-selecting group of people who are passionate about the English language and the words that make it up will not mind. In all of this wonderful detail is the type of behind-the-scenes information that leads people to fall down rabbit holes of research into the origins of words like “posh” (apocryphally noted as an acronym for “port side out, starboard side home” to indicate first-class passage on ships of yesteryear), “cop” (constable on patrol), and “Boston marriage” (a long-term love affair between two women). 

The irony is that at a time when more words are being “created” than ever before, the industry is, like many others consumed by the Internet, if not dying, than certainly limping along. Where at one point updates were produced every few years (and truly seminal works like the Third International spawned took more than 20 years and spawned books of their own (see, The Story of A’int)), now, online dictionaries have sprouted to further reduce profit margins even as lexicographers are needed more than ever. As Stamper notes, terms like “on fleek” and “mansplaining” arose out of nowhere and quickly became integral to the lexicon (the former is credited to a sixteen-year-old who used it in a six second video in June 2014 and by November of that year 10 percent of google searches were for that term, the latter spawning its own sub-industry of “-splaining” offshoots.)

Stamper is also here to slay a few shibboleths - do feel free to end your sentences with a preposition and reconsider your knee jerk rejection of irregardless. Do you furrow your brow at the death of proper English at the hands of millennials and smart phones? Reconsider your opprobrium; OMG is found in the private letters of Winston Churchill from almost one hundred years ago. Word nerds will relish Kemper’s deft hand in parsing “phonemic” and “phonetic” in a chapter on pronunciation and experience a tinge of jealousy that jobs exist that do not require any contact or communication with other human beings (Stamper paints a picture not unlike the coding hive on Silicon Valley but instead of 1s and 0s, Stamper and her team spend their days diagraming sentences and coming up with just the right way to describe the word measly.) 

Ultimately, Stamper sums up my feeling about Word By Word better than I can. In the chapter discussing the wonderful tradition at Merriam-Webster of giving written responses to all questions posed by readers, she notes: “It’s an even rarer thing to love words and find a group of other people who not only love them as much as you do, but also know a lot about them . . .” I could not agree more.



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