WORD BY WORD by Kory Stamper

Part memoir, part cultural history, Kory Stamper’s WORD BY WORD: THE SECRET LIFE OF DICTIONARIES is “a must-read for word mavens.” As a lexicographer and speaker of many (dead) languages, Kory has ample insight into the metamorphoses languages undergo over time. This is a hilarious account of how dictionaries are made… word by word.


Many of us take dictionaries for granted, and few may realize that the process of writing dictionaries is, in fact, as lively and dynamic as language itself. With sharp wit and irreverence, Kory Stamper cracks open the complex, obsessive world of lexicography, from the agonizing decisions about what to define and how to do it, to the knotty questions of usage in an ever-changing language. She explains why small words are the most difficult to define, how it can take nine months to define a single word, and how our biases about language and pronunciation can have tremendous social influence. And along the way, she reveals little-known surprises—for example, the fact that “OMG” was first used in a letter to Winston Churchill in 1917.

Word by Word brings to life the hallowed halls (and highly idiosyncratic cubicles) of Merriam-Webster, a startlingly rich world inhabited by quirky and erudite individuals who quietly shape the way we communicate. Certain to be a delight for all lovers of words, Stamper’s debut will make you laugh as much as it makes you appreciate the wonderful complexities and eccentricities of the English language.


“As a writer, Kory Stamper can do anything with words: define them, split them, lump them, agglute them, and make them work for her every bit as ferociously and precisely as she works for them in her day job as a far from mild-mannered lexicographer at Merriam-Webster. You will never take a dictionary entry for granted again.” —Mary Norris, bestselling author of Between You & Me
“A love letter to letters themselves… A cheerful and thoughtful rebuke of the cult of the grammar scolds. Stamper [is] a wry and charming correspondent. Word by Word is, like a dictionary itself, a composite affair: It’s a memoir that is also an explanation of the work that writing a dictionary entails.” —Megan Garber, The Atlantic

“An unlikely page-turner…Stamper displays a contagious enthusiasm for words…Illuminating.” The New Yorker

“Delightful… Informed, irreverent and witty…A gloriously (occasionally even uproariously) well written book, and unsurprisingly erudite. Do read [Word by Word].” —Stevie Godson, New York Journal of Books



Kory Stamper is a lexicographer (that is, a writer and editor of dictionaries) at Merriam-Webster (the dictionary). She has written and appeared in the “Ask the Editor” video series at Merriam-Webster, and has traveled around the world giving talks and lectures on language and lexicography. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications, including The Washington Post, The Guardian and The New York Times. A medievalist by training, she knows a number of languages, most of them dead. She drinks more coffee and owns more dictionaries than is good for anyone.