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Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries: A Trendsetter Roundtable

The dictionary is one of those funny things that almost everyone has, but doesn’t necessarily use very often, or even think about. Well, there are people that do think about the dictionary very often, like those who have to write it. That’s where Kory Stamper comes in. Stamper is a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster. She writes and edits the dictionary along with her colleagues. As fans of the Merriam-Webster Twitter account and videos (of which Stamper is often the star), we were very excited to hear that there was a book about what exactly goes into writing the dictionary. Without further adieu, we are proud to present the next installment of the Trendsetter Roundtable: Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper (Pantheon, 2017). 

Sam: Okay! So, wow. Dictionaries!

Nina: Dictionaries are great! 

Sam: I feel like “The Secret Life of…” is overused in book titles, but here it really fits.

Nina: It sounds like a TV show I would watch all of, which is to say, I agree.

Sam: I, like much of the internet, have followed Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account as well as Kory Stamper’s account for some time, and yet I found myself totally surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.

Nina: I was expecting to like it, but I wasn’t expecting to read this much of it aloud to long-suffering friends and family. 

What most compelled you about it?

Sam: I just completely took dictionaries for granted. Like many others, I just figured they were put together once, and with some minor upkeep here and there – additions of new words and such – there wasn’t much to them. And boy, was I wrong. I feel so ashamed for thinking it was a smaller feat. Just her bit about doing the definition for “take” was mind blowing.

Nina: That’s the one that took several weeks, right?

Sam: Yeah. Stamper writes about how the simplest words are the hardest to define and yet most people don’t look them up. Which of course they don’t — when’s the last time you looked up “take” or “the” or “like,” for that matter?

Nina: It reminded me a bit of studying foreign languages in high school and college, and how the most basic words – the filler, the conjunctions, the interjections – are the hardest to pin down. “Like” is a great example, especially because its usage has shifted over the last few decades to include a sort of colloquial paraphrase (she was like, “I read the dictionary”), which, as a native speaker, you barely register. Unless you’re a word nerd.

Sam: Well, Stamper is definitely a word nerd! There’s something so delightful and quaint-seeming about a bunch of word nerds quietly working away in an office in Massachusetts on the dictionary, but it really seems like gut-busting work a lot of the time.On the other hand, it does seem fun in some ways, not to mention important! Her chapter about changing the definition of “nude” to be, well, not about white skin was very thought-provoking. 

Nina: Right: language reflects who we are, and we are people with particular biases. The fact that no one had thought about the implication of the existing definition is unsurprising because, on a grander scale, that’s exactly the kind of thing we, as white people, don’t stop to consider. Of course nude means both “white skin” and “naked” if you have white skin.

I also really enjoyed the time and attention given to descriptive vs. prescriptive grammar, and to the general culture of bad-grammar-shaming. Like I said, I’m a word nerd, but there’s something about pointing out the obvious differences between they’re, their, and there that goes beyond simple usage.

Sam: Yeah! I took one and only one linguistics class in college (thanks, Dr. Brice!), and it was a big struggle for me in general, but learning the differences between descriptivist grammar and prescriptivist grammar really changed my view of language for the better. Descriptivism forever! I keep thinking about she’s a self-proclaimed protector of “irregardless” being in the dictionary since people do use it and people understands what it means! Her retort to folks saying it’s a made up word – that all words are made up words – is genius. And so true! That approach to language is something I wish more people could adopt.

Nina: As a native Appalachian, I grew up with West Virginia English, which is not exactly “proper” in all circumstances. It’s not bad grammar so much as it is an entirely different grammar. Outside of my home state, though, the English I heard as a kid gets brought up to signal a certain kind of poverty and lack of education. There’s a value judgment to it. So I’m also a descriptivist and an avowed defender of “ain’t,” one of mankind’s pithier and more useful creations.  

Sam: Absolutely. I used to be an Oxford English Dictionary snob, and I suppose I still am, but the Merriam-Webster dictionaries now have a large space in my heart too. But I must say, as a person who now apparently has opinions about dictionaries. The “Usage Panel” approach that the prescriptive The American Heritage Dictionary uses was troubling to me! (ed. note: this panel – now of 200 people – is still how The American Heritage Dictionary decides what does and doesn’t go in their dictionaries.)

Nina: Yes! I had no idea that dictionaries 1) were written by humans or 2) had specific, sometimes troubling philosophies guiding their construction.

Sam: Not to get political, but when I found out Scalia had been  on The American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel I immediately bristled at the thought. But again, this just shows how much I didn’t know about dictionaries. As soon as I finished the book, I grabbed my OEDs and read through some of the front matter since Stamper seemed so understandably annoyed that no one ever seems to read it! I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t read all of the OED front matter yesterday, but I read a lot of it and was embarrassed that I didn’t realize how much great info was in there.

Nina: I would also be annoyed if I’d spent that much time crafting a context and lingua franca for the enormous text my readers were going to be flipping through, and instead of reading it they just sent me emails about how I probably hadn’t realized how horribly wrong I was about something.

Speaking of, people who write to the dictionary – in a fun, conversational way, not like the storm of letters that came up around the word “marriage” – fascinate me, and I’d like to join them.

Sam: Being a lexicographer seems like a profession that totally takes over your life, in a good way. I laughed at that bit about her bringing her daughter to buy makeup at the mall, and then she started taking photos of all of the different kinds of makeup that had “nude” in the title in the hopes of expanding the existing definition of nude and her daughter just being like, “UGH, can you be normal for one second?” No, no she cannot, because her head is swarming with words, and sprachgefühl! Which was a new word to me meaning – a feeling for language. 

Nina: What a satisfying word. I knew I should’ve studied German.

It does seem like people in the word business – linguistic anatomists, I guess you could say – are consumed by their work in a way that not everyone who has a job is. It seems very existential, especially since you do end up answering questions that might begin their lives addressing the correct usage of the word “be” but end up considering race, class, history, and the meaning of human expression.

Sam: It’s no small job! That’s for sure. So how did this book expand your view of publishing – if at all?

Nina: In a certain way, I think it changed my view of everything. Of course, that extends to publishing too.

This made me think a lot about what exactly books are for. If the dictionary, which is a cultural mainstay at this point, if a misunderstood one, faces so many huge and unanswerable questions, then what does it mean when we put all of those words together in the service of a story or a play or an exposé? All of those things matter, and all of the words we use to build them matter, too. So I’ve been further disabused of the idea that language is neutral. In terms of publishing, that means I’ve also been disabused of the idea that our producing and selling items of language is a neutral act, too.

In a much lighter sense, I also just have deepened respect for the work that goes into every aspect of book-making but especially editorial work.

Sam: Well, I didn’t get as deep as you did, but it really made me think about the value of dictionaries in the monetary sense. Toward the end of the book Stamper talked about the first round of layoffs MW had ever had and how troubling it was for the staff. As she proved time and time again, making a dictionary is really hard work, and expensive work. Somewhere at the beginning she asked when we’d last bought a dictionary, and the sad truth is I never have! I asked for my OED for Christmas in college, and I got a Merriam-Webster‘s dictionary after I graduated high school, but no, I’ve never purchased one myself. And more often than not I look a word up online instead of in the physical dictionary. Like much of traditional publishing, Merriam-Webster is trying to keep up with the digital age! It made me a bit sad, and it made me want to buy a dictionary.

Nina: It made me want to buy a dictionary more than I usually do, and I usually want to buy a dictionary. So I think I have everyone’s presents for the next year figured out. 

I want to add one more thing that I loved about this book: the humor.

Sam: Yes! In these chats I always like to ask what the Trendsetter audience might take away from a book we read, but really, what wouldn’t they take away? This is a totally charming read that seriously considers language in a way I’d never thought of before, and really, I think that’s something anyone in publishing would have at least some level of interest in.

Nina: Absolutely! Perhaps my favorite anecdote from the offices of Merriam-Webster is Stamper’s description of the Transitizer: a piece of paper featuring prewritten sentence, with a hole strategically cut out so you can place it over a verb to see if it’s transitive or not. The sentence the verb gets plugged into is “I’ma ____ ya ass.” So I would like to offer a transitive verb of my own: Word by Word, I’ma recommend ya ass.

Sam: Ha! And on that note, I will close this with my favorite fun fact I learned from this book: when you trace the word “pumpernickel” back to its Germanic origins, it means fart goblin. 

Nina: That’s absolutely delightful, and I saw you tweet Kory Stamper about it. I think we are all better people for knowing it now.

Sam: She said that information would change me on a molecular level, and I really think she’s right.

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