Word by Word : Kory Stamper

I could never be a lexicographer because they pay too much attention to detail. Way too much attention to detail. They define them, split them, lump them, agglute them, and dissect them with a patience I’ve never had for anything, but I’m glad they do it, and I will never look at another dictionary with such simplicity and ignorance (change this word) again.

However, if you are a word person, a grammar guy or gal, and if you get caught up in all sorts of intricate discussion on whether or not “irregardless” is an actual word or a butchering of the English language, if you spend a large percentage of your writing and reading life wrestling with word choice, placement, and arrangement, then you might really dig this book. And then maybe, you can tell me your thoughts. I promise to listen and not judge.

Admittedly, it’s a bit strange, how much I want to be a writer yet how much I seem to just not care that much about grammar and the sliced down details of words, because I think words matter – greatly – and when I read a piece of work with poor grammar, I notice, and I’m distracted, at best. Checked out completely at worst. It’s actually one of the greatest and consistent critiques of my own writing and speaking, but, strangely, I just don’t care that much to spend my valuable time working on it.
Images, stories, and the rolling of beautiful sentences that conjure the deepest of emotions, that is what attracted me to literature and the words on a page, not the details.

It’s a conundrum, and for now, I’m okay with that, because I have to be. I don’t have time for anything else.

That said, nothing is all bad (or all good for that matter), and Word by Word is no different. (To be fair, and fully clear, I didn’t hate this book, not even close. I would just be extremely specific on who I recommended it to).


Here are some of the highlights:


“Most people think of the parts of speech as discrete categories, drawers with their own identifying labels, and when you peek inside, there’s the English language, neatly folded like a retiree’s sock: Person, Place, Thing (Noun); Describes Action (Verb); Modifies Noun (Adjectives); Answers the W Questions (Adverb); Joins Words Together (Conjunction); Things We Say When We Are Happy, Surprised, or Pissed Off (Interjection).”

Not sure if I ever saw it explained so simply. I’ll probably use this in the future.


“Many people believe that the dictionary is some great guardian of the English language, that its job is to set boundaries of decorum around this profligate language like a great linguistic housemother setting curfew. Words that have made it into the dictionary are Official with a capital O, sanctioned, part of Real and Proper English. The corollary is that if certain words are bad, uncouth, unlovely, or distasteful, then folks think that the dictionary will make sure they are never entered into its hallowed pages, and thus are such words banished from Real, Official, Proper English. The language is thus protected, kept right, pure, good. This is commonly called “prescriptivism,” and it is unfortunately not how dictionaries work at all. We don’t just enter the good stuff; we enter the bad and ugly stuff, too. We are just observers, and the goal is to describe, as accurately as possible, as much of the language as we can” (pg 35).

And I think they should be. People want and need dictionaries to understand the world around them, the language spoken, and the images attempting to be conjured. If dictionaries sifted out the slang and morphing and, god forbid, vulgarity of words, not only would a dictionary be even more boring, it would become more and more useless. At least to the common, every-day man and woman.


“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” (pg51.

I’m currently in process of being considered for an ESL teaching position at a university in Philadelphia, so this stuck out a bit more to me than it otherwise would have. Language impacts the way we think, which clearly impacts the way we act and live. American’s, perhaps more than any other people group, crave, even demand, a life defined by autonomy. No surprise that the language does as well.


: Possible Reading Resource :

Polly Adler’s book A House Is Not a Home. Polly Adler’s name was well-known to discerning readers of the early twentieth century: she was the most celebrated brother owner and madam in New York. Her memoir supplied some fantastic quotations, including the delightful, “trying to chisel in on the beer racket” (pg 79).

“In an odd way,” Steve Perrault says, “I tend to feel that 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” (pg 124).

This is more like it. “The meaning is something that resides in the world,” and not in the specific artificial thing. That “artificial thing” is its roots, though, and without it, the word would be lost in the wind of language. Which is perhaps the beauty of the English language – it allows and fosters both.


: Possible Reading Resource :

“Jo Freeman’s pamphlet The BITCH Manifesto was written in 1968 and published in 1970, right as second-wave feminism crested. The year of the manifesto’s creation, “sexism” was first used in print, and the first public protest against restrictive abortion laws happened in New York City; the year of its publication” (pg 157).

Sideburns are a “play on the name of the Civil War officer who made them popular, General Burnside” . . . and we say somone is “worth their salt” because “in the ancient world salt was such a valuable commodity that we used to pay people in it (and this is why you also get a salary). (pg 171-172).

“In the days of steamer travel between England and India, wealthy patrons traveling with the Peninsular and Oriental Company reserved the choicest cabins on the ship, which were the ones that got the morning sun but were shaded in the afternoon – no air-conditioning in the nineteenth century. These cabins were on the left side of the ship on the way out, and the right side on the way home, and were so stamped “P.O.S.H” to indicate that the ticket holder had a cabin that was port side out, starboard side home. The “posh” ticket, then, was for the moneyed, elegant folk, and it was the association with wealth that gave us the “elegant” and “fashionable” sense of “posh” we know today (pg 177).

Whether it is true or not, I love it and will probably refer to it whenever I want to sound intelligent and well-read.

“Who thought that “pumpernickel” was a good name for a dark rye bread? Because when you trace the word back to its German origins, you find means “fart goblin” (pg 182).