Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries

Pantheon. Mar. 2017. 320p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781101870945. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101870952. LANG
OrangeReviewStarMerriam-Webster (MW) lexicographer Stamper helps write and edit the estimable products of one of America's premier dictionary publishers. Hungry word lovers will find this book a delicious, multicourse meal of word lore, the personal story of the author's life and career, and detailed backstory of the harrowing process by which dictionaries are produced. Her well-designed volume consists of 15 chapters, each about a word ("it's," "irregardless," "take," "bitch," "posh," "marriage," etc.) and its history in the dictionary. Discussion of each word illustrates a topic in language or in lexicography such as grammar, defining words, etymology, dating of words, pronunciation, authority, etc. The real appeal is in the charming stories of the words and the personally guided tour of the MW editorial process, told in Stamper's fresh and funny voice. Another noteworthy, recent insider look at the making of a major dictionary is John Simpson's The Word Detective, about his tenure as editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.
VERDICT A satisfying dip in the ocean of words and a thoughtful consideration of current American English and dictionaries.

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