Word by Word | Kory Stamper

Summary of: Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries
By: Kory Stamper


Embark on a fascinating journey through the world of lexicography and experience the inner workings of dictionary writing in Kory Stamper’s ‘Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries’. The book summary unravels the misconceptions about grammar, dives into the delicate process of lexical defining, and explores the intricate art of selecting words for inclusion in dictionaries. You will witness how the seemingly simple task of lexicography can transform into a complex, thought-provoking, and sometimes controversial undertaking that holds a mirror to society and its language use.

A Linguist’s Dream Job

Discover the fascinating world of lexicography, the discipline of dictionary writing, and how it’s the perfect job for a linguistic nerd.

Choosing a career path can be daunting, but have you ever considered pursuing the discipline of lexicography, or dictionary writing? It may not be an expanding industry, but lexicographers are a rare breed with fascinating careers that are perfect for linguistic nerds.

Interestingly, not many people plan to become lexicographers since the profession is not well-known. However, if you have a good command of English and a university degree, any degree, you already have what it takes to be a lexicographer. This is because lexicography involves defining terms across various fields, and there’s no limit to the diversity of the English language.

As a result, lexicographers come from different backgrounds, ranging from sports enthusiasts to queer studies specialists. However, the profession isn’t ideal for social individuals as it often involves sitting alone in absolute silence for hours at a time, as the author experienced when she applied to work at Merriam-Webster.

Despite the quiet environment, a career in lexicography offers opportunities to geek out on words and language all day long. Moreover, understanding grammar plays a crucial role in lexicography. So if you’re looking for a unique, challenging, and fulfilling career, consider the fascinating world of lexicography.

The Complexities of Grammar Unraveled

Grammar is a complicated subject that lacks simple answers and absolute rules. Even the smallest words, such as “but” and “the,” can spark debates among lexicographers, leading to fudging and speculation. Categorizing words according to the eight known parts of speech gets tricky too. For instance, “the” has been classified as an adjective since the nineteenth century due to tradition and slight modifications of nouns. This complexity goes against the popular misconception that being a grammar whiz only requires balancing clauses and using bells and whistles.

The Real Purpose of Grammar

Grammar isn’t about perfectionism, but rather, understanding how language works. This summary explains why grammar rules shouldn’t be used to criticize others, and the importance of identifying one’s own linguistic biases. Lexicographers record language as it exists, not how it should be in an imaginary rulebook, challenging our fundamental beliefs about what is “correct” language.

The Curious Case of “Irregardless”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and the Debate over a Non-Word

Merriam-Webster, a reputable dictionary, has received numerous quibbles from its readers on linguistic matters since the late nineteenth century. One of those quibbles arose from an email claiming a mistake in the dictionary’s entry for “irregardless.” While the word seems to be nonsensical, most dictionaries still include it, and Merriam-Webster states that it is nonstandard and that “regardless” is preferred. However, a Mississippian claimed that “irregardless” was used as the superlative of “regardless” in his state. The author couldn’t confirm whether this was true, but her search for evidence led to citations in Merriam-Webster’s collection dating back to the nineteenth century.

While there is evidence for the use of “irregardless,” its meaning remains open to debate. Some argue that it could be interpreted as an intensifier, but the most common explanation is that it is a mix of “irrespective” and “regardless.” The debate over “irregardless” highlights the complexities and nuances of language, and the ongoing evolution of dictionaries reflects its ever-changing nature.

The Limitations of Lexical Defining

There are two types of defining: lexical and real defining. Lexicographers limit themselves to the former, which involves describing word usage and accepted meanings. Real defining is the work of philosophers and experts who attempt to understand and describe the essence of an object or concept. Lexicographers deal with mundane affairs like understanding what a word means in a specific context, rather than exploring the real essence of a word. Dictionary readers can get confused between lexical and real defining, often expecting real definitions from dictionaries. However, lexicographers are not making their definitions with such high aims in mind. They simplify complex ideas and just describe the word usage and accepted meanings.

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