Word by Word
by Kory Stamper
Pantheon Books

“When’s the last time you bought a dictionary?” asks Kory Stamper. “I thought so.” So it’s no surprise to learn that the lexi­cographer is a dying breed – the kind of person Samuel Johnson, the unofficial patron saint of the profession, once defined as “a harmless drudge”. Little seems to have changed, despite dictionaries having moved online and amateur definers helping to keep things current. Stamper, who joined Merriam-Webster in 1998, describes a work environ­ment that would defeat the most com­mitted of word lovers: she and her colleagues toiled in near silence, no phones to distract them, and entirely alone. It wasn’t enough simply to arrive at good definitions (such as “con­temp­tibly small” for measly). Lexicogra­phers like her had to parse English as it is used, and classify words within sentences by their function. Everyday grammar, she points out, is “useless” when confronting oddities such as “the”, which has been entered as an adjective since the 19th century. Eschewing bombast, Stamper reveals how even the most illogical words (think “irregardless”) have come to be included in dictionaries, and how “love” can cause a wobble. This book is a blast. Take my word for it.