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Book Review: Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries

Word by Word: The Secret Life of DictionariesWord by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kory Stamper knows words. And she should because, as she explains, being a lexicographer is no mindless jaunt down the proverbial primrose path. I’m not sure if I enjoyed this book more for the behind-the-scenes look at writing a dictionary or for her writing style. I found myself quoting sections of the book while laughing hysterically. If people were present, they sometimes looked away politely.

Using individual words, she lets us peek into the combination of thought and angst that goes into defining terms, providing usage examples, etymologies, and pronunciation. She shares what it’s like to be in the trenches of the grammar wars. Merriam-Webster is on the descriptivist side of the debate. If you want a prescriptivist version, go to American Heritage.

Who would have thought that the dictionary could be so rife with fascinating conundrums? Those brave lexicographers work so hard to help the rest of us understand all the nuances of what we so thoughtlessly toss into the world. Who could have guessed that lexicographers sometimes get death threats because of decisions they make to make the language reflect how it’s actually used?

If you care about the English language at all, this book is a must-read!

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