cover image Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries

Kory Stamper. Pantheon, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-101-87094-5

For those who love language, this debut from Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, will be a delectable feast. Stamper, who also produces the dictionary’s “Ask the Editor” video series, has drawn up a witty, sly, occasionally profane behind-the-scenes tour aimed at deposing the notion of “real and proper English” and replacing it with a genuine appreciation for the glories and frustrations of finding just the right word. Stamper claims to approach her subject irreverently, and she certainly does make fun of both language and those who peddle it for a living. But her teasing is belied by a real devotion to its spirit, if not to the letter of all the stuffy so-called laws. Liberally employing a host of wonderful words—foofaraw, potamologist—she declaims elegantly on the beauty and necessity of dialect, how to evaluate emerging words, and many other topics. Stamper is at her best when entertaining the reader with amusing etymologies, celebrating the contentiousness of grammar, and quoting annoying emails from an opinionated public. If she bogs down occasionally in the swamps of industry jargon, it’s easy to forgive her. As one of her colleagues notes, “Words are stubborn little fuckers.” However, Stamper corrals them to her purpose with such aplomb that readers might just feel like applauding. Agent: Heather Schroder, Compass Talent. (Mar.)