7 Books Inspired by the Dictionary

From a feminist guide to the English language to a novel about interns searching for fake words, we look closely at the encyclopedia of words

Photo by Houcine Ncib on Unsplash

I’m barely on Twitter, but I can appreciate an excellent tweet. There are some standard characteristics of the best—they are terse and clever, and, even better, they are well-worded and cutting. It’s no wonder that one of my favorite tweets, a triumphant quip, was drafted by a dictionary account: It’s the tweet from Dictionary.com referencing a particular definition in a quote tweet from Forbes naming Kylie Jenner the youngest “self-made” billionaire.  

Perfection.

Now, the account is only a brand personality for the dictionary created by an impressive team (looking at you, social media manager heroes). But it still makes it clear that Dictionary.com, like other dictionaries, takes some stances. It can be tempting to see a dictionary as a completely objective text, a collection of words and their meanings that exist separate from the day-to-day, but we know that’s not the case. Our language evolves, and new words and new meanings arise, so dictionaries need to be paying attention and actively involved. And we do too. 

So whether you’re already following all your favorite dictionaries on Twitter or you’re looking for more word-play fixes after Wordle, this list has some required reading. Here are seven books that explore the dictionary and its cultural impact as a scholarly pursuit, as a place to find purpose, as a text to be challenged and changed, and a way to find meaning.

Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language by Amanda Montell

I was in a women and gender studies class in grad school when it finally clicked that referring to a text as a seminal work of feminist literature was, well, wrong. And that’s just one of so many phrases, words, and even grammatical rules with built-in biases. In this work of nonfiction, Amanda Montell explores this sexism inherent in our language—and how we think about “correct” use of language to this day. 

Because Montell is a linguist, she deals not only with words but how, when, and why we use them. She covers everything from vocal fry to discourse markers to female pronouns for inanimate objects to the six different forms of like (all of which, Montell argues, you’re free to use.) But Montell’s chapter on insults might be the most entertaining in this book—if also one of the most infuriating. Montell walks you through studies about perceptions of women who swear, as well as the different types of swear words and how often being likened to a woman is an insult. Plus, she leaves you with some feminist suggestions for additions to your cursing vocab.

The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams

Eley Williams’ debut novel follows a fictional dictionary during two timelines. In the late 19th century, Peter Winceworth is a lexicographer working on “S” for the Swansby’s dictionary when he decides to enter his own words into the work. In the present day, Mallory is interning at Swansby’s Dictionary for what she thinks might be too long when her boss, the last in a long line Swanby editors, tasks her with finding all of these fake words and removing them before the dictionary is digitized. Mallory commits herself to the project, despite her boss’s general neglect and an anonymous caller threatening the dictionary headquarters. 

This book is a delightful glimpse into the lives of two compelling characters who are questioning their vocation and their purpose while working for the dictionary. Even more, the writing is beautiful, with charming, energetic wordplay perfect for a dictionary-based book.

The Great Passage by Shion Miura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

This novel also explores the dictionary as a purpose and a workplace. When Kohei Araki is ready to retire from his role as  dictionary editor, he needs to find his replacement to work on the next project, The Great Passage, a new, inclusive, complete Japanese dictionary. Araki finds Mitsuya Majime, a younger colleague in the sales department  who is awkward, 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 poring over the words to include in the nearly 3,000-page, updated edition. The story is sweeping in nature, but the book is short, with compact sentences and, of course, careful, precise wording.

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

In this sweet, historical novel, Esme is just a kid when she starts collecting words. Her father works as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary project, and Esme collects the paper slips that her father and the other employees collect, curate, and consider for the first editions of the dictionary. As Esme gets older, she becomes more concerned about the words that she doesn’t see in the published dictionary or on the slips of the men working on the next letters. So she starts keeping records of words that she hears in conversation in the kitchen, at the market, in letters from her aunt—words that women use.   

This book reimagines the creation of the OED during the suffrage movement for white women 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 critique of the OED that admonished the editors for leaving out bondmaid, such a common word at the time but one that didn’t refer to men, let alone men of means. Williams uses Esme’s project to explore both the intentional and unintentional excision of words from the OED, with the heightened tension from the 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 becomes an adult—one who never loses interest in collecting words.  

The Professor and The Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

Like The Dictionary of Lost Words, The Professor and The Madman focuses on the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Unlike Williams’ novel, this is a work of nonfiction—dramatic and twisty and thrilling nonfiction, that is.

While creating the OED, Professor James Murray, the editor, solicited and accepted words, definitions, and excerpts from many members of the public in order to accomplish the significant undertaking. Dr. William Chester Minor was an American surgeon who submitted thousands of these words to the project and corresponded with Murray personally for more than twenty years. The entire time he was contributing and declining invitations to visit Murray in Oxford, Minor was in Broadmoor, a criminal psychiatric facility. Simon Winchester unravels the mystery of who exactly Minor was and traces the relationship between Minor, Murray, and the OED. 

(N.B. There is a movie adaptation, but it’s starring Mel Gibson. Shame.) 

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

In her memoir Word by 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 dispels some myths right away—that dictionaries moralize language, that they make the final call on what words make the cut. She provides behind-the-scenes details, like how she and her colleagues answered complaint emails, as well as facts that I can’t forget. (Irregardless was a word long before it was whole-heartedly rejected as not a word? The more you know.)

The best part of this memoir is Stamper’s warmth and enthusiasm. Her excitement in describing everything from her high-school insults to the coffee maker in the disappointingly drab Merriam-Webster offices is palpable, and it makes for a lovely read. 

Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Best-Selling Books by Jess McHugh

Admittedly, this book isn’t exclusively or primarily about dictionaries. But it does explore the impact that seemingly un-biased reference texts have on our society and one particularly eye-opening chapter on a dictionary that originated American mythology we still see today. Journalist Jess McHugh shares the history of Merriam-Webster’s 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, that included dropping the “u” in words like “color” and providing pronunciation guides that matched Webster’s own Connecticut accent. It also included using the right examples to illustrate the uses of these words, drawing from Protestant beliefs and American literature. 

Even from its inception, the reference text was anything but neutral. Pick this one up for McHugh’s exploration of this American dictionary, but keep reading for how other benign texts like The Betty Crocker Cookbook and The Old Farmer’s Almanac contribute to our understanding of American identity today.

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