When I retired from the Army I did so with very little fan fare. My boss at the time asked me how we could celebrate my departure and if I wanted anything. In my last few months in the building one of my activities was to rummage through lesser used portions of our office space and clean up the clutter. One item in the clutter was a 1980’s printing of Webster’s 3rd Unabridged, A Dictionary.
I told my boss that I’d just like to take the dictionary with me and if folks wanted to write nice things on the inside couple of pages, I’d be happy as a clam. They did, and I have very lovely sentiments on the inside few pages.
20 years in the military. 2 deployments to Iraq. One deployment to Afghanistan. Retirement, and I chose the dictionary.
Why? Because I love words and the process of how they’re created and added to the language. So, when my favorite language podcast (yes there is such a thing) featured an interview with a lexicographer, I pay attention, add the lexicographer’s book to my Audible wish list, and only just recently got to listening and finishing the book.
Wow! What a book!
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper is an excellently narrated look at the way dictionaries are created, the controversies created by the results of their formulaic methodology, and the struggle to adapt a company to the digital age.
Calling it the Secret Life of Dictionaries is just about the most perfect name for it because the author truly exposes the system behind how these words got there! Kory’s telling (she narrates the audio book herself) carries all the excitement and passion of someone who truly loves words and their creation. I was doubly thankful that she narrated the book herself because the sections on pronunciation of certain sounds would not be the same had they hired out the talent. There are some real humdingers in the text!
Kory manages to successfully navigate the reader through the subject matter with grace and encourage increased curiosity. Many books of this subject matter or this size tend to expose the author’s laziness in writing, but Kory overcomes these with style. Her writing was so successful that now the people I work with (I was only technically retired for three days before I started my next job) consider me even weirder than I was already. Why? Because I was so engaged with the book that I wanted to share? Isn’t that just human nature?
When I shared what I was learning with my coworkers their facial expressions were priceless. I think I’ve had more than a dozen conversations with coworkers that have gone along the lines of…
Tom, I’m reading a new book on how dictionaries are created and did you know there’s a word for that familiarity you have with a language? It’s called Sprachgefühl. It comes from German and it’s pretty neat that we’ve adopted it into.. [interrupted]
Wait a second! Did you say you’re reading a book about how dictionaries are created? [facepalm]
Yes, and it’s fascinating. Did you know that irregardless is actually a word that’s been in use since the 1700’s? Ravel, and unravel mean the same thing! Who knew, right?
I’m no where near close to losing my job over this, but there has been talk in the office suggesting that something must be wrong with me because I fell in love with a book about dictionaries. It’s not my fault that when I was interviewed for my current position they never asked me what the last job gave me for a parting gift. If they had, I would have told them. We could have gotten this out in the open months ago.
Kory’s book warrants addition to the list of books I’d recommend to my mother, and if I’m going to recommend it to my mom, I think it’s safe to recommend it to the fair readers of this blog. Although, I will warn my mother that her sensitivities to the less than polite words might be triggered as Kory is more free with her vernacular than my mother may be used to. Still, I did not find the language overly aggressive or inappropriate. It does figure that someone who is as familiar with words as a lexicographer is entitled to freely use all the words she’s had to define over the years.
None of this curiosity would have been possible without something snapping a few years ago when I started noticing there was a world of systems around me that had been virtually invisible. Exploring those systems has increased my gratitude and my understanding tremendously. Thank you, Mrs. Stamper, for sharing the system that has lead to a new appreciation for the very words I use to dress my thoughts and their shared meaning that we capture like butterflies and place gently into the dictionary.