Lexicographers: Fact or Fiction?

Do lexicographers really exist? Or are they like unicorns?

Or perhaps they’re like mailmen.

Lexicographers are unlikely protagonists of a novel — though of course they might not exist and could still be protagonists of a novel, as hobbits are. You might expect lexicographers to be protagonists of a non-fiction memoir, in which case they have to be real. Well, they’re protagonists of the novel The Broken Teaglass, by Emily Arsenault, as well as the memoir Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper. In both cases Merriam-Webster takes center stage — although it’s subtly disguised as The Samuelson Company in Arsenault’s book.

So lexicographers really do exist, and if you don’t know how they work, you’ll learn that from both books. They provide complementary — not contradictory — views on how dictionaries are written, and the memoir is (perhaps surprisingly) the one that is more fun. Adrienne Raphael describes it better than I can. I also recommend Jonathan Owen’s review in Arrant Pedantry. Both reviews will give you a good picture of Kory Stamper’s work. This is one of those cases where it’s OK to read the review before the book, as you don’t have to worry about spoilers. Finally, another related recommendation is for Stamper’s podcast, Fiat Lex.

As for the Arsenault novel, that’s a horse of a different color, so to speak. Yes, as I said above, it’s about a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, but it’s also a mystery of sorts. And a coming-of-age novel of sorts. And it has a surprise — a couple of them, actually — so I’ll avoid spoilers. It’s slow-paced, so don’t read it if you insist on quick reads. But the characters are the sort that you care about, and you won’t want to give up in the middle.

Both books are very clear about being descriptive, not prescriptive, and both have many funny moments, which you may not be expecting. And if you’ve ever wondered what philosophy majors do with their lives, here’s a possible answer.,

Categories: Books, Linguistics