Who would have thought a book about someone who edits dictionaries would be so delightfully engaging? Even better? I listened to the audio book, narrated by Stamper, and her personality and wit shone through the airwaves. Despite her self-deprecating descriptions of lexicographers as solitary, introverted shut-ins who would rather sit in a dark room alone than talk to another human, being in the room with her for this book was a great reading experience.
Stamper regaled me with her stories of how she tackled the word, “took.” In what might otherwise be painstaking detail, I was in non-ironic awe of Stamper’s description of the system of index cards and makeshift piles she created in her cubicle in order to properly sort and define the many meanings and uses of the word – one of the many troublesome short and ubiquitous words in our language.
I reveled in how naive I was about the dictionary, always seeing it as an authority on what was or was not a word and what its *actual* meaning was. But Stamper taught me that words are in circulation, first verbally, then informally in writings like letters and notes, and finally more formally in publication. By the time a word is entered in a dictionary, it has been circulating for some time. And the definition is written by lexicographers who catalog a word’s various uses and then try their best to parse out the sometimes myriad ways it is used. If anything, dictionaries are an authority on the common uses of words, recording English’s evolution through time.
I listened with rapt attention as Stamper explained how dictionaries are formatted and should be used. She also talks about the social and political backlash that occurs based on things like changing a definition (like marriage) or not changing a definition (like nude).
And throughout each lesson, she gives tidbits of the etymology of various words that are damn near as interesting as her discussion on the use of swear words in dictionaries.
Stamper’s book will make you think differently about words, and maybe the English language in general. If anyone is an “expert” in the English language, it is all of us, and lexicographers only reflect how words are used by its speakers. This book gives you a lot more confidence to shout out non-words like “irregardless” with wanton disregard for the so-called rules. You’ll feel free of the restraints of the English language and shout to the hills, “damned be the legalists!” You might even be tempted to pick up a dictionary for some light reading.
Whatever thoughts or actions this book inspire in you, you’ll be better for it.