7 dictionary-inspired books
I’m barely on Twitter, but I can appreciate a great tweet. There are some standard features of the best – they’re concise and smart, and best of all, they’re well-written and cutting-edge. No wonder one of my favorite tweets, a triumphant quip, was written by a dictionary: This is the tweet of Dictionary.com referencing a particular definition in a quote tweet from Forbes naming Kylie Jenner the youngest “self-made” billionaire.
Now the account is just a brand personality for the dictionary created by an awesome team (looking at you, social media manager heroes). But it’s still clear that Dictionary.com, like other dictionaries, takes certain positions. It can be tempting to see a dictionary as a completely objective text, a collection of words and their meanings that exist separately from everyday life, but we know that is not the case. Our language is changing, new words and new meanings are appearing, so dictionaries need to be attentive and actively involved. And U.S. too.
So whether you’re already following all your favorite dictionaries on Twitter or looking for more word game fixes after Wordle, this list has some must-read. Here are seven books that explore the dictionary and its cultural impact as scientific inquiry, as a place to find purpose, as text to be challenged and changed, and as a means of finding meaning.
Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Resuming the English Language by Amanda Montell
I was in a women’s and gender studies class in college when I finally realized that naming a text as a seminal work of feminist literature was, well, wrong. And that’s just one of many phrases, words, and even grammatical rules with built-in biases. In this non-fiction work, Amanda Montell explores this inherent sexism in our language and how we think about the “correct” use of language to this day.
Because Montell is a linguist, she is not just about words but how, when and why we use them. It covers everything from voice fries and speech markers to feminine pronouns for inanimate objects and the six different forms of like (all, according to Montell, you’re free to use.) But Montell’s chapter on Insults might be this book’s most entertaining – if it’s also one of the most infuriating. Montell guides you through studies on perceptions of women who swear, as well as the different types of swearing and how often being equated with a woman is an insult. Plus, she leaves you with some feminist suggestions for additions to your cursing vocabulary.
The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams
Eley Williams’ debut novel follows a fictional dictionary through two timelines. At the end of the 19th century, Peter Winceworth was a lexicographer working on the “S” for Swansby’s dictionary when he decided to enter his own words into the book. Nowadays, Mallory is interning at Swansby’s Dictionary for what she thinks is too long when her boss, the latest in a long line of Swanby’s editors, tasks her with finding all those fake words and removing them before the dictionary is digitized. Mallory commits to the project, despite her boss’s general negligence and an anonymous caller threatening Dictionary headquarters.
This book is a delightful insight into the lives of two fascinating characters who question their calling and purpose while working for the dictionary. Plus, the writing is lovely, with charming and energetic wordplay, perfect for a dictionary-based book.
The Great Passage by Shion Miuratranslated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
This novel also explores the dictionary as a purpose and place of work. When Kohei Araki is ready to retire from his role as dictionary editor, he must find his replacement to work on the next project, The Great Passage, a new inclusive and comprehensive Japanese dictionary. Araki finds Mitsuya Majime, a young co-worker in the sales department who is clumsy, unsure of what he wants to do, and fascinated by language. He takes the job.
The novel follows Majime over the next 15 years as he falls in love with his landlady’s granddaughter, hires a young editor to join his team, and spends his days pondering which words to include in the updated edit. up-to-date of almost 3,000 pages. The story is vast, but the book is short, with compact sentences and, of course, careful and precise wording.
The dictionary of lost words by Pip Williams
In this sweet historical novel, Esme is only a child when she begins to collect words. Her father works as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary project, and Esme collects scraps of paper that her father and other employees collect, store and consider for early editions of the dictionary. As Esme gets older, she becomes more concerned with words she doesn’t see in the published dictionary or on the slips of men working on subsequent letters. So she begins to write down the words she hears in conversations in the kitchen, at the market, in her aunt’s letters, words that women use.
This book reimagines the creation of the OED during the white women’s suffrage movement and in the years leading up to World War I. Williams explained that she was inspired to write this novel after hearing about an early OED review that chastised the editors for leaving out handmaiden, a word so common at the time but one that didn’t. did not refer to men, let alone rich men. Williams uses Esme’s project to explore both the intentional and unintentional excision of OED words, along with the heightened tension of political movements. The result is a moving novel that not only follows the OED through publication and revision, but follows Esme beyond her childhood as she grows into adulthood – a person who never loses her interest in word collecting. .
The Professor and the Madman: A Story of Murder, Madness and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
To like The dictionary of lost words, The Professor and the Fool focuses on creating the Oxford English Dictionary. Unlike Williams’ novel, it is a work of non-fiction – dramatic, meandering, thrilling non-fiction, that is.
When the OED was founded, Professor James Murray, the editor, solicited and accepted words, definitions and excerpts from many members of the public in order to accomplish the important undertaking. Dr. William Chester Minor was an American surgeon who submitted thousands of these words to the project and corresponded personally with Murray for over twenty years. Throughout the time he contributed and refused invitations to visit Murray at Oxford, Minor was in Broadmoor, a criminal mental institution. Simon Winchester unravels the mystery of who exactly Minor was and traces the relationship between Minor, Murray and the OED.
(NB There is a film adaptation, but it stars Mel Gibson. Too bad.)
Word for Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper
In his memoirs Word for word, Kory Stamper, a lexicographer who worked at Merriam-Webster for more than twenty years, offers an insider’s look at the day-to-day tasks involved in writing dictionaries for a living. Stamper immediately dispels some myths – that dictionaries moralize language, that they make the last call on words that make the cut. She provides behind-the-scenes details, like how she and her colleagues responded to complaint emails, as well as facts I can’t forget. (Independently was a word long before it was heartily dismissed as not being a word? The more you know.)
The best part about these memoirs is Stamper’s warmth and enthusiasm. His enthusiasm for describing everything from his high school insults to the coffee pot in the disappointing offices of Merriam-Webster is palpable, and that makes for an enjoyable read.
Americanon: An Unexpected History of the United States in Thirteen Best-Selling Books by Jess McHugh
Admittedly, this book is not exclusively or primarily about dictionaries. But it explores the impact seemingly unbiased reference texts have on our society, and a particularly revealing chapter on a dictionary that originated the American mythology we still see today. Journalist Jess McHugh shares the story of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which was first written by Noah Webster in the 1780s.
Webster’s project was to standardize a distinctly American English language. As McHugh explains, this included dropping the “u” in words like “color” and providing pronunciation guides to match Webster’s own Connecticut accent. It also included the use of good examples to illustrate the uses of these words, drawing on Protestant beliefs and American literature.
From its creation, the reference text was anything but neutral. Pick this one for McHugh’s exploration of this American dictionary, but keep reading to learn how other benign texts like Betty Crocker’s Cookbook and Old Farmer’s Almanac contribute to our understanding of American identity today.