bloodygranuaile: (ed wood)
[personal profile] bloodygranuaile
A few weeks ago, at the ACES conference in St. Petersburg, I had the privilege of being in the audience at the very first reading for Kory Stamper's new book, Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. I'd followed Kory Stamper on Twitter for a while, even before Merriam-Webster became the unlikely voice of The Resistance. Reading her blog, Harmless Drudgery, had definitely turned me into one of those people for whom being a lexicographer sounds like the best job ever, although now that I've read the book, I must concede that it's entirely possible I wouldn't be very good at it if by some miracle I did land a lexicographer job, since I'm prone to burnout about stuff generally, and because apparently it's not really possible to tell if your sprachgefuhl is quite strong enough until you've put it to the test.

Anyway. The book.

I loved it.

Inasmuch as it has a narrative thread, it is Kory Stamper's memoirs, starting with her job interview and walking us through her training and the major lexicographical challenges and triumphs of her career, for the purpose of illustrating what making dictionaries requires and what kind of weirdos make them. Within this basic framework we take many detours -- into Kory's pre-lexicographical life, into the history of the Merriam-Webster dictionary and of dictionaries in general, into the histories and uses of a lot of weird words, and many other odd and interesting places.

This book contains many footnotes, many of which are in the form of definitions, which is quite cute, but they also have jokes and funny asides in them, like Terry Pratchett footnotes. (My favorite bit was the one I found an error in and then I felt smart.)

Stamper's general style is one I tentatively dub Internet Witty, a form of speech that is marked not necessarily by fancily formal sentences, but by a wide range of registers, references, tidbits, factoids, wordplay, and other things that word nerds have fun with. It shows off a wide-ranging rather than a narrowly specialized education and worldview on the part of the writer. It's the playfully nerdy style that was elevated to an art form on The Toast, basically, highbrow and lowbrow and middlebrow at the same time. It gives us phrases like memento moron: "remember you, too, will fuck up." It marks Stamper as one of the tribe of people who know a lot of obscure liberal arts things but who do so because obscure liberal arts things are hilarious -- i.e., my people. In short, it is very, very far from the dry, objective, personality-less style mandated by the dictionary itself. Squeezing all the color out of a dictionary definition is quite a process, and one which Stamper walks us through with self-deprecating and sometimes juvenile good humor.

If you love words, you'll love this book. If you're a bit of a snob about words, it will challenge a lot of your assumptions -- one of my favorite bits of the book is Kory's journey to becoming an "irregardless" apologist -- but if you like rolling around in them and banging them together and pulling them apart to see what's inside, then boy is this book for you.
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