Where the words are brought in from the wild

The Baltimore Sun

That dictionary on the desk next to the computer is not like the other books in the room, books with authors, authors who express a voice and personality. That dictionary is a block of anonymous, impersonal Authority.

And yet it is an intensely human product, the work of a small, fiercely disciplined group of obscure people, lexicographers, whose labor produces perhaps the most rigorously edited text you will ever hold in your hands.

Kory Stamper gives us a glimpse of their world in Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries (Pantheon, 296 pages, $26.95), just published.

At the center of her world, the Merriam-Webster offices in Springfield, Massachusetts, the lexicographers bend silently over their texts—speech is strenuously discouraged, lest concentration should be disrupted—attempting to capture fleeting moments of ever-moving living English.

She and her colleagues are describing English, going into the wild to collect specimens and classify them. “The lexicographer’s job is to tell the truth about how language is used,” she writes, and the lexicographer’s attitude toward sticklers and traditional grammarians is so important that she italicizes her summary of it: “Standard English as it is presented by grammarians and pedants is a dialect that is based on a mostly fictional, static, and Platonic ideal of usage.

Describing English is accomplished by reading, lexicographers being people who are paid (though not much) to read all day. But they do not read as you and I do. The lexicographer at work does not read for pleasure, because that would distract from the task. The lexicographer is on the lookout for individual words or phrases in a periodical, book, advertisement, song lyric, menu, sign, whatever—individual words that suggest a new coinage or a new sense of an old word. After identification there is the reading through scores, hundreds, thousands of citations to nail down that nuance of meaning.

After such a distinction is established comes the writing, but lexicographers do not write as you and I write when they define. Definitions in a dictionary follow an unswerving formulaic set of categories and requirements. The fundamental requirement is that definitions are not to be interesting. They are not to exhibit flair or personality. They are to be absolutely, clinically neutral. (Not that that keeps the customers from firing off heated emails when they encounter a definition that they don’t like, such as a sense of marriage that includes gay couples. But the lexicographer wasn’t legislating, but merely displaying what was hauled back from the wild.)

Then comes the editing, and there is no end to it: definer to copy editor to specialty editor to cross-reference editor to etymologist to dating editor to pronunciation editor to copy editor to final reader to proofreader. And after it all goes to the printer, a set of proof pages is returned for proofreading again. “Lexicography moves so slowly,” Ms. Stamper writes, “that scientists classify it as a solid.”

Editors will immediately feel a kinship. Our work, too, is solitary, anonymous, and not particularly remunerative. Ms. Stamper herself feels the kinship, remarking that a lexicographer must have, like the most accomplished editors, “a sharp, sharp eye and a filthy, filthy mind.” (And let me insert a quick remark here about my pleasure that she saw fit to use my coinage, peeververein, in a sentence.)

She also makes recurring references to the introversion and social awkwardness traditionally associated with both editors and lexicographers, but I think that she employs the stereotype for wry effect. I have met Kory Stamper, and of the colleagues she names I have also met Emily Brewster, Peter Sokolowski, and Steve Kleinedler. They are all hit performers at conferences of the American Copy Editors Society, which is Mardi Gras for the nerdity. Their dictionaries may not display personality, but they certainly do.

As does this book. You may already know Ms. Stamper’s blog, harmless drudgery, the title taken from a little joke Samuel Johnson allowed himself in 1755. The tone at the blog, informal, funny, sliding back and forth between standard English and the demotic, is reproduced in Word by Word, which entertains as much as it instructs.

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