Monday, June 19, 2017

Language as unruly child: Kory Stamper's Word by Word

"We think of English as a fortress to be defended," writes Kory Stamper, "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....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."

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries is Stamper's love song to the English language, written by a Merriam-Webster lexicographer skilled at explaining how the world of dictionaries works. Stamper explores the history of dictionaries and their cultural impact along with the nitpicky work required to construct them, but this wealth of detail does not weigh down the volume because Stamper infuses her stories with freshness and verve.

Her love affair with language takes into account etymology, grammar, spelling, and sound, sometimes separated from meaning--Stamper defies readers "to say the word 'hootamaganzy' aloud and not immediately fall in love with it, regardless of what it means." (I'll let you have the pleasure of looking it up.) But even the process of researching and describing nuances of meaning becomes compelling in Stamper's telling, as when she devotes an entire chapter to the many weeks she once spent updating the definition of the word "take." 

Stamper admits that lexicography has its occupational hazards, among them a tendency to develop a clinical approach to language. "When you spend all day looking carefully at words," she writes, "you develop a very detached and unnatural relationship with them. It's much like being a doctor, I imagine: a beautiful person walks into your office and takes off all their clothes, and you spend all your time staring at the sphygmomanometer."

Despite spending her working days surrounded by "the fusty glut of old papers bunged hastily into metal bookshelves," Stamper maintains a sense of wonder at the quirks of an ever-evolving language. If language is an unruly child that insists on going its own way, studying language can turn lexicographers into curious toddlers intent on examining everything: 

A job where you read all day can be a pleasure, to be sure, but it can also ruin you. Words cease to be casual, tossed off, and able to be left alone. You are that toddler on a walk, the one who wants to pick up every bit of detritus and gunk and dead insect and dog crap on the sidewalk, asking, "What's that, what's that, what's that?' while a parent with better things to do tries to haul your over-inquisitive butt away.

And while the lexicographer's work requires long hours spent in solitude and silence with only words for company, some of the more compelling chapters in the book describe the interactions between lexicographers and the public.  Stamper faced a firestorm of abuse after Merriam-Webster updated its definition of "marriage," but a more mundane task is tackling the constant stream of letters from readers demanding that the dictionary give them credit for inventing certain words, or that it recognize their pet peeves or cherished folk etymologies, or that it remove certain words because they are ungrammatical or hurtful or "made-up":

Of course 'irregardless' is a made-up word that was entered into the dictionary through constant use; that's pretty much how this racket works. All words are made-up. Do you think we find them fully formed on the ocean floor, or mine for them in some remote part of Wales?
Further, she feels the need to point out that "removing a word from the dictionary doesn't do away with the thing that word refers to specifically, or even tangentially." In response to demands that the dictionary police grammar rules rather than describing the way language is actually used, she asserts, "Humanity sets up rules to govern English, but English rolls onward, a juggernaut crushing all in its path."

In Word by Word, English is a juggernaut, an unruly child, a patient, a "murky swamp," and the ocean in which we're plunged, says Stamper, and 
Lexicographers spend a lifetime swimming through the English language in a way that no one else does; the very nature of lexicography demands it. English is a beautiful, bewildering language, and the deeper you dive in, the more effort it takes to come up to the surface for air.
I wanted to remain plunged beneath the surface of Stamper's work, but alas, all good books must come to an end. Fortunately, though, the work of creating dictionaries is never complete, because "A dictionary is out of date the minute that it's done." This is good news for lexicographers like Kory Stamper, who calls herself a "drudge" but makes her drudgery feel vibrant and vital. "English bounds onward," she concludes, "and we drudges will continue our chase after it, a little ragged for the rough terrain, perhaps, but ever tracking, eyes wide with quiet and reverence."

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