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Word by Word

The Secret Life of Dictionaries

By Kory Stamper
15-minute read
Audio available
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

Word by Word (2017) is about an object, and its associated profession, for which people rarely spare a thought: dictionaries and the honorable occupation of lexicography. Kory Stamper introduces the fascinating world of word classification through her own experience at Merriam-Webster, showing what dictionaries can do and, just as importantly, what they don’t.

  • Language enthusiasts and linguistics nerds
  • Lovers of English literature
  • Anyone hoping to get a new perspective on underappreciated professions

Kory Stamper works as a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster. She is also a popular blogger whose writing has appeared in the Guardian and the New York Times.

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Word by Word

The Secret Life of Dictionaries

By Kory Stamper
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper
Synopsis

Word by Word (2017) is about an object, and its associated profession, for which people rarely spare a thought: dictionaries and the honorable occupation of lexicography. Kory Stamper introduces the fascinating world of word classification through her own experience at Merriam-Webster, showing what dictionaries can do and, just as importantly, what they don’t.

Key idea 1 of 9

For people whose job it is to research words and communication, lexicographers sure love silence.

Choosing a career path is never easy, and it’s something a lot of people struggle with. But how’s this for an idea: the discipline of lexicography, or dictionary writing.

Lexicographers are a rare breed. After all, dictionary writing is not an expanding industry; just think of the last time you bought a dictionary, or even used one. It was probably years ago, if you can even remember.

But then again, lexicography was hardly a mainstream profession even in its heyday. Those who became lexicographers often didn't originally plan to do so – mostly because not many people know about lexicography in the first place!

However, if a job does open up, and you’re one of the rare few who finds this kind of work appealing, then there’s a good chance of getting it. The only things lexicographers need are a good command of English and a university degree of some kind – any kind.

It really doesn’t matter what you studied, as there’s no limit to the diversity of the English language. If you’re about to define a load of mathematical terms, then a mathematician rather than an English major is much more likely to cut the mustard.

All this means that lexicographers are a rather mixed bunch, from sports enthusiasts to queer studies specialists.

That being said, lexicography is not an ideal profession for social people, as it often involves sitting alone in absolute silence for hours at a time.

In fact, when the author applied to work at Merriam-Webster, she was specifically told not to expect social interaction. She was brought to the editorial floor where everyone was busy beavering away in individual cubicles. The silence was deafening.

And this is exactly what makes it the perfect job for a linguistic nerd. You’ll get to sit in silence thinking about words all day long.

But it's not all about words. In the next blink, let’s look at the role of grammar in lexicography.

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