by Hugh Gilmore

When reading my Kindle and coming across a word I don’t know, I can highlight the word and make its definition appear. For example, in my current reading, Isaac Babel’s “The Red Cavalry,” the word “verst” appears often. I highlighted it and found: “verst: Russian measure of distance, equivalent to 3,500 feet, or 0.6629 miles or 1.067 kilometers.” I could then gallop on with my reading. I don’t use devices for pleasure reading. I just read print books. So when I come across a word, I sometimes say it aloud a few times, hoping to look up its definition as soon as I’m done the book. (Bad choice: I never remember.)

Other times, I write the word and page number at the back of the book (but, again, forget to look them up after reading the book). What works best is to “punish” myself for not knowing the word and force myself to stop everything and pull up my three-pound dictionary from its place beside my bed. (For true linguistic emergencies, the complete multi-volume Oxford English lurks in the closet.)

It’s hard not to wonder, as I thumb through the pages, why so many obscure words appear as my finger hunts down the target word. Why is “flivver” (“facetious: an old, small or cheap automobile.”) there on page 505? Or “klong … a canal in Thailand.” “Palinode: a poem in which a poet retracts something he said in an earlier poem?” “Shadoof: a water bucket suspended on a weighted rod?”

Words like these once had currency and needed defining, but do they still? As the eons roll on, will every diplomat in the world be included? Will every branch of every blood vessel of every animal be recorded? What about slang? “Dirty” words? Dialects?

These thoughts were in my mind (sometimes in the back, sometimes in front) when I got lucky while aimlessly browsing in the Philadelphia Free Library shortly afterward. I happened upon a book with an alluring subtitle: “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries” (2017). The author’s name is Kory Stamper. She worked for Merriam Webster for over 20 years, and this is her kiss-and-tell book about life in the dictionary factory. As Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” I’d found the book I needed for the questions I’d been asking.

A New Yorker blurb on the cover said, “Both memoir and exposé, an insider’s tour of the inner circles of the mysterious fortress that is Merriam-Webster.” The New York Times wrote that the book “mixes memoiristic meditations on the lexicographic life along with a detailed description of the brain-twisting work of writing dictionaries.” The Daily Hampshire Gazette said, “A funny, inside look at how new words make their way into dictionaries.” And, just to round out this parade of paeans, Booklist praised the book as “a marvelous insight into the messy world behind the tidy definitions on the page…”

The library’s copy was rather beat up because some previous patron allowed it to get waterlogged and dry curly. I checked it out anyway so I could begin reading it, but ordered my own copy, with the good intention of offering to swap when I’m done. Now, however, having read it, I’m reluctant to give it up. I’ll order another for the FLP.

For one thing, “Word for Word” made me stop saying “The” dictionary. There is no single dictionary. I’ve started saying “a” dictionary – as in “I’ll look it up in a dictionary.” The version I’ve had on the floor next to my bed is “The Random House Dictionary of the English Language College Edition.” It was published in 1968 – more than half a century ago. Thousands of new words have entered the English language since then. They flood in from technology, computer science, popular culture, the social, physical and biological sciences, the military, social media and every other field of human life where the English language is used.

What’s more: unlike, let’s say, the French Academy, which tries to forestall the infiltration of French by foreign languages, English is a huge, messy, all-embracing and rather democratic language. Regard these words, for example: anonymous (Greek); loot (Hindi); cookie (Dutch); cartoon (Italian); guru (Sanskrit); karaoke (Japanese); lemon (Arabic) and ketchup (Chinese).

Stamper’s book begins with her job interview with Merriam-Webster, and follows her through her training as she learns how to “read and mark” in the constant search for new words that might possibly deserve to be included in any of their new editions. From there, she learned how to be a “definer.” Try it yourself sometime, as she demonstrates how difficult it is. The smaller the word, the harder it is to properly define. An entry must also have an etymology, and ultimately be pronounced. Every one of these aspects of a printed definition must be considered, chewed on, researched, argued about and then, uneasily, let go of, so the new version of the living, breathing dictionary, in all its various forms and limitations, may go to press.

And meanwhile, the editorial staff has already accumulated a large batch of materials for the next edition. New words arrive, old words need redefinition and research reveals new origins and new pronunciations for already-published words. “Word for Word” is a book that is interesting, funny, demanding, knowing and dry. It will also seem like a work of blasphemy to those who think that dictionaries are supposed to prescribe, rather than describe, how our living, bumbling and occasionally miraculous human language works.

Hugh Gilmore lives and works in Chestnut Hill. He is the author of “Scenes from a Bookshop,” a series of stories based on life in his old and antiquarian bookshop that once dwelled at 43 E. Chestnut Hill Ave.

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