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Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries

4.19  ·  Rating details ·  7,687 ratings  ·  1,524 reviews
Brimming with intelligence and personality, a vastly entertaining account of how dictionaries are made a must read for word mavens.

While most of us might take dictionaries for granted, the process of writing them is in fact as lively and dynamic as language itself. With sharp wit and irreverence, Kory Stamper cracks open the complex, obsessive world of lexicography--from
Hardcover, 296 pages
Published March 14th 2017 by Pantheon Books
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Susan If she watches TV she's heard all the words in this book. If she loves words and writing, she'll like this book. It may be a bit over her head in some…moreIf she watches TV she's heard all the words in this book. If she loves words and writing, she'll like this book. It may be a bit over her head in some parts -- it was over mine in some parts -- but it's a story about how we advance our language. I think it should be required reading for all word lovers.(less)

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Average rating 4.19  · 
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Hannah Greendale
Click here to watch a video review of on my BookTube channel, From Beginning to Bookend.

For many people, the dictionary is a relic once used by grandparents and is now, in its retirement, relegated to the dishonorable position of dust-covered doorstop. Lexicographers – those quiet, anti-social compilers of dictionaries – are, presumably, a thing of the past. Not so, proclaims Kory Stamper, longstanding lexicographer for Merriam-Webster. In this rousing debut that unveils the complicated craf
Jun 25, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In 2016 we had a memoir from the chief editor of the OED – The Word Detective – and now here's one from an editor at Merriam-Webster. Truly, dic-lit has never been so popular. Where John Simpson was personable and thorough – if a little sober, perhaps – Kory Stamper is all breathless enthusiasm; at times this means she comes across (quite wrongly) as more ingénue than expert, but she more than makes up for it with several brilliant case studies of how lexicography interacts with real people and ...more
Olive Fellows (abookolive)
I absolutely adored it. It might not be for anyone who doesn't enjoy minutiae or who doesn't have a thing for words, but this was right up my alley. ...more
Apr 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
4 stars

This totally satisfied my inner "word-nerd". Lexicographer/Merriam-Webster Dictionary-writer (and blogger/vlogger) Kory Stamper provides, with Word by Word, a humorous and fascinating look at the dying art of dictionary construction. It's not nearly as stuffy and dull as the subject matter might indicate.
May 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
I liked this book a lot, but I do have to admit that it was a dense one and it appeals to a sparse group of people. This book needs to be read slow to be enjoyed in a more satisfying manner . I liked how the author made us feel her love for the English Language and how she applied that to her job as editor of one of the most know dictionaries out here . If you consider yourself a logophile , then this book is definitely for you. Not the most exciting one but full of a minutiae of information tha ...more
Mar 20, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A priceless weapon in the war against linguistic pedantry. (But not much use to a professional linguist: it's mostly 101 and 201.)


~ For fun, I'm going to list here all the words and phrases I've learnt from this book:

board book
soap (= soap opera)
(at) full tilt
flop sweat
want ad
to deadpan
oriel (window)
to bung
the heebie-jeebies
bugger all
whoop it up
Anne ✨ Finds Joy
The book you didn't even know you wanted to read! Who would have thought a book about dictionaries and lexicographers could be so completely enjoyable and immensely entertaining! I would not have immediately gravitated to a book like this, imagining that it would be much too dry, and better suited for hard-core word nerds and academics! But when a few GR friends gave it glowing recommendations, using words such as ‘comedic’ , ‘fascinating’, and ‘candid’ in their reviews, I was intrigued. I mean, ...more
Jessica Jeffers
Jul 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: bibliophilia
This was a fun, fascinating read that gives you some insight into the process of making the Merriam Webster dictionary. Kory Stamper breaks down how decisions are made regarding what goes into the dictionary (it's descriptive, not prescriptive!) as well as how lexicographers write definitions and example phrases--mindful to avoid personal bias. She gets into the differences between lexicographers' and grammarians' views on the English language and examines how words evolve over time and across d ...more
Jill Hutchinson
Jan 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: reference
I would wager that if you look at a list of the hardest jobs in the world, lexicologist would not be on it….well, it should be. These dedicated people are insane geniuses whose entire lives are made up of words; they wake up in the middle of the night to jot down a thought or dream that they had which might help them in editing the dictionary; they listen to the conversation of others to find clues as to how English is being used; they read about new sciences that may bring a new word to the lan ...more
Suzze Tiernan
Mar 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
When I was in about 6th grade, when my class went to the library, I would take the 6" (or so) thick dictionary off its podium and sit with it, looking for words I didn't know. So, when I saw the advance copy of this book, I HAD to read it. It's just lovely. Written by a lexicographer at Miriam-Webster, it's an ode to words, definitions, and pronunciations. I love the acknowledgements, written as definitions. ...more
Sep 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: language-studies
Kory Stamper takes you inside Merriam Webster to show you how their dictionary is made. You can see how the lexicographers and the company they work for are dedicated to their product.

Dictionary users are usually not aware of all that goes into creating these reference works. Many believe that dictionaries are a source for “regulating” language and would be surprised to know that their role is to describe how language is used. Most surely will not know how a publisher decides when a new word is
Joe Gaspard
Mar 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
If you love dictionaries, you'll love this book. Written by a confirmed Descriptivist who cannot always control a bit of the Prescriptivist still lurking within. Here's a great paragraph from Stamper's book - If you like the paragraph, I'm betting you will like the book:

We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but a better analogy is to think of English as a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to
“Language moves much faster than lexicography. There are not enough of us around to even see every word in the language, let alone define every word in the language.”

I could play it cool and say that Word by Word… is a truly insightful exploration of the neverending work of a lexicographer, delving into deeper issues of the English language, such as its history, politics, and essential slipperiness. Hell, I could go on and add how much I appreciated the author’s dry, pithy humour, her charmi
Dec 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Word lovers
Recommended to Margie by: Nancy G. - thank you!
Shelves: non-fiction
4/16/2020: Update for word lovers! Kory Stamper is quoted in this L.A. Times article (4/15/2020) about newly coined pandemic words and existing medical terms that have become part of our everyday vocabulary:
Have a "quarantini" on me!

By turns funny, profane, geeky and enlightening, Kory Stamper, an editor at Merriam-Webster gives us an inside look at the travails of lexicographers in editing and putting together dictionaries such as the Eleventh edition of
May 06, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
adjective | fas·ci·nat·ing | \ˈfas-ˌnā-tiŋ, ˈfa-sə-ˌnā-\

Definition of fascinating
: extremely interesting or charming : captivating a fascinating documentary gave a fascinating account of the expedition

That just about sums the whole book up. Interesting and very charming.
Mar 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: audiobook, favorites
Update: Kory Stamper is currently appearing on a new Netflex series about, ready: curse words, (the history of); hosted by Nicholas Cage (he's pretty good at this.), and various comedians. AND, a woman who has a Ph.D. in this very subject (or something close.) Check it out word lovers.

I adore this book; more specifically, the audiobook. If Kory Stamper ever needs a side job, she definitely can become a narrator for audio books. I never realized the toil that goes into creating and maintaining a
Nov 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I loved this book in a way that makes me totally unqualified to recommend it to anyone.

I can’t remember the last time I read a book and realized it was written by someone who thinks like me, someone who understands the English language almost the same way I do. In the middle of this book, my wife and I had this conversation:

Me: She [Stamper] keeps saying things like “most people don’t think about grammar this way,” but I do!
Her: You’re an academic editor. You basically have the same job she doe
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
Jul 17, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: word-play
This book is probably not a book for everybody. If you are the type of person who goes for action movies, for example, or loves to watch a good, hard game of football, well, you might just pass this book up.

But if you have always secretly thought that it was be a fine, fine job to carefully investigate and define words, to search out just the right way to explain wards, to figure out how to pronounce words...if you are a person who loves to think about all the nuances associated with words...if
Apr 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What a treat

The opening is hysterical. There are some slow early chapters but once you get into the book a bit it reads like a love letter to language, culture, hard work, and creativity. I thoroughly enjoyed Word by Word.
Sasha Tagger
Apr 30, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
I love reading about languages, their development, etymology etc. (I speak and read freely five languages, and understand more or less a few others). But this book is too wordy and rather boring. I gave up after the first 100 pages. Also, she uses too many rare or regional words I've never encountered before, while they contribute nothing to clarity or style, just showing up ...more
Kim Clifton
Jun 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
An incredibly thorough and fascinating look at the process of writing a dictionary, and a defense of the dictionary's job as a recorder of usage instead of a prescriber. I gave it five stars in appreciation for the intensive research that went into creating this, but four stars in terms of my actual interest in reading paragraphs full of citations or pronunciations. I enjoyed the parts that felt most like a memoir-- Stamper explaining how she got her job and Merriam-Webster or telling anecdotes ...more
Aug 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: funny, non-fic
Surprisingly moving, both for its unabashed love of words and language and for its description about how fraught words can be - politically, sexually, racially, socially.

This book about how dictionaries are made, made me have the feels.
Dec 08, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, language
Two typos and three "snuck"s; otherwise a perfect book for us word nerds. ...more
Oct 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A fun, informative, surprisingly unpretentious book. The author is very likeable and the material is nerdy as hell- but let’s face it, if you’re an active Goodreader, it’s a given you’re a nerd.

From interesting borrowed words (“sprachgefuhl”) to seeing familiar words in totally new ways (I will never look at “the” the same way again), this book covers it all while managing to stay down-to-earth.

For instance: joke is on grammar snobs, because “it’s” was the original proper possessive form of it
"...the definition is an imperfect thing any way you look at it. A definition is an attempt to explain a word’s meaning using these certain conventions, and you have to distinguish between the definition of a word and the meaning of a word. The meaning is something that resides in the word, and the definition is a description of that. But a definition is an artificial thing."
If you are in anyway interested in language, etymology, and the quirks of English, then read this book, as it's a whol
Susan Albert
Mar 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir, language
Kory Stamper's book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, lets me in on all the dirty little secrets of dictionary-making (a lot like making sausages, it turns out). Stamper reminds me of just how much fun people have with language, and how deeply we as readers are delighted when we are surprised by writers/speakers who are having linguistic fun. As Stamper says, we grew up with the idea that English is "a fortress to be defended," when a better analogy would be to think of it as a gro ...more
May 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
I love this book so much I'd marry it, or at least I feel the need to proselytize everyone I meet about the joys of "this dictionary book I just read." It was so much fun to read, and I keep finding myself relating things I learned from it to other people. I also recommend it to the book club, so here's hoping I get to read it again later.

Should this come with a disclaimer? My husband and I love A Way with Words and have spent many hours enjoying those weird and delightful regional variations th
May 20, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, 2017
Who reads books about how dictionaries are made? Nerds. Nerds like me. Being a nerd, I found this book to be very interesting and informative. It had a good mix of information about the dictionary business, language usage, word origin, and the history of language and dictionaries. Unfortunately I also found this book very hard to read. Overall I was quite disappointed with the quality of the writing. I felt like the book was very poorly organized, repetitive, and wordy. I also didn't care for th ...more
Jamie Smith
Aug 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: language
I once joined the Book of the Month club just to get a copy of the two volume OED, the one that comes with its own magnifying glass to read the microscopic print. On my web browser I have www.etymonline.com/ bookmarked so that when I need to look up a word I can also find its history. For all that, I could never be an lexicographer; it sounds too much like Accounting without the excitement. I recognize that lexicographers play an important role in documenting the state of the language, but while ...more
Dec 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2017, borrowed, audiobooks
I wish I'd been a lexocologist... ...more
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Kory Stamper is a lexicographer (that is, a writer and editor of dictionaries) at Merriam-Webster (the dictionary). She has written and appeared in the "Ask the Editor" video series at Merriam-Webster, and has traveled around the world giving talks and lectures on language and lexicography. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications, including The Washington Post, The Guardian and The Ne ...more

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23 likes · 0 comments
“We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but a better analogy is to think of English as a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don't want it to go: it heads right for the goddamned electrical sockets. We dress it in fancy clothes and tell it to behave, and it comes home with its underwear on its head and wearing someone else's socks. As English grows, it lives its own life, and this is right and healthy. Sometimes English does exactly what we think it should; sometimes it goes places we don't like and thrives there in spite of all our worrying. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like Latin; we can throw tantrums and start learning French instead. But we will never really be the boss of it. And that's why it flourishes.” 47 likes
“English has a lot of synonyms for “fool” or “idiot.” Perhaps you take this to mean that English speakers are mean-spirited; I simply reply that necessity is the mother of invention.” 27 likes
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