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Kory Stamper shares tales of life as a lexicographer

Kory Stamper shares tales of life as a lexicographer

March 28, 2017 By Story by Julia Wilson/Photo by James Harbeck Conferences

ACES 2017 participants were priviliged to experience Kory Stamper's first public reading of her new book, "Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries."

Kory was inspired to capture her life as a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster after realizing that so many people were fascinated by what it's actually like to "write a dictionary."

Always engaging and adorably snarky, easily identified by her short, purple 'do, Kory shared portions of Chapter 1 and then took questions from the audience. Some of the highlights follow.

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary is one of the best-selling books in American history, second in sales only to the Bible.

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries

Those who might envision M-W as a grand, imposing structure are often surprised to learn that it is housed in a simple two-story brick building where there are sometimes drug deals in the parking lot. "Ring the bell and no one will answer it."

While the first floor houses the more talkative employees such as those in marketing, IT, and customer service, the second floor is virtually silent, with heavy fire doors — a dome of concentration where one senses "the feel of people, though not the sound of people."

There are two formal requirements to be a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster: having a formal degree from an accredited institution and being a native speaker of English. The dictionary benefits greatly from a diverse range of talents and skillsets including economists, historians, poets, artists, and mathematicians.

As a lexicographer, you must set aside personal prejudices and opinions, thrive in isolation and silence for eight-hours or longer, and immerse yourself in the nuanced meanings of each word, distilling a broad definition into its essence in just a few brief sentences.

Fun Facts About Kory

She truly enjoyed her book's editing process, which included two copy editors and three proofreaders. (Despite everyone's diligence, two typos have been discovered, the first of which Kory found during her audio book recording session.)

Her secret shame is comma usage. Shh!

After researching a particular word exhaustively, there are times she never wants to to see it again (take). But she has a special affection for others (mosh).

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My favorite quote from the session: "Adverbs are horrible; they are the junk drawer of language."

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Editors, writers, and lovers of language in any form will adore this book. Those of you at ACES, make sure to get an autograph and a selfie with Kory this week!

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