This one is another book from the pile of unread books I’d accumulated over the years. I bought Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries in New York back in 2017 and finally read this at the end of 2019. So here’s a familiar sounding remark about my latest read: I can’t believe I didn’t read this sooner. (I am currently on a book-buying ban—I make exceptions here and there, particularly for nonfiction—so I can focus on reading the books I already have.)
Reading this was fun. Like the dictionary, it wasn’t instructive (or meant to be); it was descriptive. I wasn’t expecting to bookmark anything on this book, but there were some anecdotes that jived with my humor that I wanted to make sure I could easily find them in the future. Here are two fun pages: 133 and 199—check them out.
Perhaps another reason I am partial to this book is that I have always enjoyed reading and writing. I also used to have very strong opinions about grammar, but I eventually grew to appreciate how language evolves and with it its words and grammar. (Although I have finally accepted the existence of “irregardless,” I still avoid using it like the plague.) It was interesting to read about how the evolution of a word’s definition is captured by lexicographers. In a way, they’re historians.
Something that took me by surprise was that people actually take the time to write to dictionary editors to express their opinions. Wow, people read the dictionary? As it turns out, the answer is yes, and these people’s opinions must be heard. Even lexicographers must read and address angry emails. Imagine that. But there were some friendly neighborhood emails, too (there were a bunch of interesting comments about “irregardless”). As with every industry, there are a handful of thoughtful people that write in out of goodwill. (To these people—thank you. Your words are always a breath of fresh air.)
Finally, there was something about Kory Stamper’s writing style that captured my heart. I found it quite charming, as if I was reading a fairy tale or something. Everything flowed so well that I found myself reading through the night, and let me emphasize that this is the only nonfiction book (by far) that I have chosen to read over sleep. I enjoyed it that much. Eventually sleep got in the way, but don’t let that invalidate my praise.