Arrant Pedantry

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Book Review: Word by Word

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper

Disclosure: I received a free advance review copy of this book from the publisher, Pantheon Books. I also consider Kory Stamper a friend.

A lot of work goes into making a book, from the initial writing and development to editing, copyediting, design and layout, proofreading, and printing. Orders of magnitude more work go into making a dictionary, yet few of us give much thought to how dictionaries actually come into being. Most people probably don’t think about the fact that there are multiple dictionaries. We always refer to it as the dictionary, as if it were a monolithic entity.

In Word by Word, Merriam-Webster editor Kory Stamper shows us the inner workings of dictionary making, from gathering citations to defining to writing pronunciations to researching etymologies. In doing so, she also takes us through the history of lexicography and the history of the English language itself.

If you’ve read other popular books on lexicography, like The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch, you’re probably already familiar with some of the broad outlines of Word by Word—where dictionaries come from, how words get in them, and so on. But Stamper presents even familiar ideas in a fresh way and with wit and charm. If you’re familiar with her blog, Harmless Drudgery, you know she’s a gifted writer. (And if you’re not familiar with it, you should remedy that as soon as possible.)

In discussing the influence of French and Latin on English, for example, she writes, “Blending grammatical systems from two languages on different branches of the Indo-European language tree is a bit like mixing orange juice and milk: you can do it, but it’s going to be nasty.” And in describing the ability of lexicographers to focus on the same dry task day in and day out, she says that “project timelines in lexicography are traditionally so long that they could reasonably be measured in geologic epochs.”

Stamper also deftly teaches us about lexicography by taking us through her own experience of learning the craft, from the job interview in which she gushed about medieval Icelandic family sagas to the day-to-day grind of sifting through citations to the much more politically fraught side of dictionary writing, like changing the definitions for marriage or nude (one of the senses was defined as the color of white skin).

But the real joy of Stamper’s book isn’t the romp through the history of lexicography or the English language or even the self-deprecating jokes about lexicographers’ antisocial ways. It’s the way in which Stamper make stories about words into stories about us.

In one chapter, she looks into the mind of peevers by examining the impulse to fix English and explaining why so many of the rules we cherish are wrong:

The fact is that many of the things that are presented to us as rules are really just the of-the-moment preferences of people who have had the opportunity to get their opinions published and whose opinions end up being reinforced and repeated down the ages as Truth.

Real language is messy, and it doesn’t fit neatly into the categories of right and wrong that we’re taught. Learning this “is a betrayal”, she says, but it’s one that lexicographers have to get over if they’re going to write good dictionaries.

In the chapter “Irregardless”, she explores some of the social factors that shape our speech—race and ethnicity, geography, social class—to explain how she became one of the world’s foremost irregardless apologists when she started answering emails from correspondents who want the word removed from the dictionary. Though she initially shared her correspondents’ hatred of the word, an objective look at its use helped her appreciate it in all its nuanced, nonstandard glory. But—just like anyone else—she still has her own hangups and peeves, like when her teenage daughter started saying “I’m done my homework.”

In another chapter, she relates how she discovered that the word bitch had no stylistic label warning dictionary users that the word is vulgar or offensive, and she dives not only into the word’s history but also into modern efforts to reclaim the slur and the effects the word can have on those who hear it—anger, shame, embarrassment—even when it’s not directed at them.

And in my favorite chapter, she takes a look at the arcane art of etymology. “If logophiles want to be lexicographers when they grow up,” she writes, “then lexicographers want to be etymologists.” (I’ve always wanted to be an etymologist, but I don’t know nearly enough dead languages. Plus, there are basically zero job openings for etymologists.) Stamper relates the time when she brought some Finnish candy into the office, and Merriam-Webster’s etymologist asked her—in Finnish—if she spoke Finnish. She said—also in Finnish—that she spoke a little and asked if he did too. He replied—again, in Finnish—that he didn’t speak Finnish. This is the sort of logophilia that I can only dream of.

Stamper explodes some common etymological myths—no, posh and golf and the f word don’t originate from acronyms—before turning a critical eye on Noah Webster himself. The man may have been the founder of American lexicography, but his etymologies were crap. Webster was motivated by the belief that all languages descend from Hebrew, and so he tried to connect every word to a Hebrew root. But tracing a word’s history requires poring over old documents (often in one of those aforementioned dead languages) and painstakingly following it through the twists and turns of sound changes and semantic shifts.

Stamper ends the book with some thoughts on the present state and future of lexicography. The internet has enabled dictionaries to expand far beyond the limitations of print books—you no longer have to worry about things line breaks or page counts—but it also pushes lexicographers to work faster even as it completely upends the business side of things.

It’s not clear what the future holds for lexicography, but I’m glad that Kory Stamper has given us a peek behind the curtain. Word by Word is a heartfelt, funny, and ultimately human look at where words come from, how they’re defined, and what they say about us.

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries is available now at Amazon and other booksellers.

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Gray, Grey, and Circular Prescriptions

A few days ago John McIntyre took a whack at the Associated Press Stylebook’s penchant for flat assertions, this time regarding the spelling of gray/grey. McIntyre noted that gray certainly is more common in American English but that grey is not a misspelling.

In the comments I mused that perhaps gray is only more common because of prescriptions like this one. John Cowan noted that gray is the main head word in Webster’s 1828 dictionary, with grey cross-referenced to it, saying, “So I think we can take it that “gray” has been the standard AmE spelling long before the AP stylebook, or indeed the AP, were in existence.”

But I don’t think Webster’s dictionary really proves that at all. When confronted with multiple spellings of a word, lexicographers must choose which one to include as the main entry in the dictionary. Webster’s choice of gray over grey may have been entirely arbitrary. Furthermore, considering that he was a crusader for spelling reform, I don’t think we can necessarily take the spellings in his dictionary as evidence of what was more common or standard in American English.

So I headed over to Mark Davies’ Corpus of Historical American English to do a little research. I searched for both gray and grey as adjectives and came up with this. The grey line represents the total number of tokens per million words for both forms.

gray and grey in tokens per million words

Up until about the 1840s, gray and grey were about neck and neck. After that, gray really takes off while grey languishes. Now, I realize that this is a rather cursory survey of their historical distribution, and the earliest data in this corpus predates Webster’s dictionary by only a couple of decades. I don’t know how to explain the growth of gray/grey in the 1800s. But in spite of these problems, it appears that there are some very clear-cut trend lines—gray became overwhelmingly more common, but grey has severely diminished but not quite disappeared from American English.

This ties in nicely with a point I’ve made before: descriptivism and prescriptivism are not entirely separable, and there is considerable interplay between the two. It may be that Webster really was describing the linguistic scene as he saw it, choosing gray because he felt that it was more common, or it may be that his choice of gray was arbitrary or influenced by his personal preferences.

Either way, his decision to describe the word in a particular way apparently led to a prescriptive feedback loop: people chose to use the spelling gray because it was in the dictionary, reinforcing its position as the main entry in the dictionary and leading to its ascendancy over grey and eventually to the AP Stylebook‘s tweet about its preferred status. What may have started as a value-neutral decision by Webster about an utterly inconsequential issue of spelling variability has become an imperative to editors . . . about what is still an utterly inconsequential issue of spelling variability.

Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for grey.

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