Books for Word Nerds
Calling all word nerds! Did you know that “hangover” wasn’t associated with drinking too much until the 1900s? Or that nobody knows the exact derivation of “posh”? Have you ever daydreamed about what it would be like to edit a dictionary, either fictional or real? Have you ever tried to write without using a specific letter? Have you wondered what would happen if libraries didn’t exist? Or been in a situation where you lacked the words to communicate, not because you didn’t know them or they didn’t exist, but because you didn’t speak the language? Regardless of whether you answered “yes” or “no, but that’s fascinating, tell me more” to any of the above, these books are for you.
The Liar’s Dictionary: A Novel by Eley Williams
“A playful paean to lexicology. . . . Its main focus, like the characters’, is not actions but words, and ‘the transformative power of proper attention paid to small things.’”—The New Yorker
In the final year of the nineteenth century, Peter Winceworth is toiling away at the letter S for Swansby’s multivolume Encyclopaedic Dictionary. But his disaffection with his colleagues compels him to assert some individual purpose and artistic freedom, and he begins inserting unauthorized, fictitious entries. In the present day, Mallory, the publisher’s young intern, starts to uncover these mountweazels in the process of digitization and through them senses their creator’s motivations, hopes, and desires. More pressingly, she’s also been contending with a threatening, anonymous caller who wants Swansby’s staff to “burn in hell.” As these two narratives coalesce, Winceworth and Mallory, separated by one hundred years, must discover how to negotiate the complexities of life’s often untrustworthy, hoax-strewn, and undefinable path. An exhilarating, laugh-out-loud debut, The Liar’s Dictionary celebrates the rigidity, fragility, absurdity, and joy of language while peering into questions of identity and finding one’s place in the world.
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“[An] eloquent love letter to letters themselves. . . . A cheerful and thoughtful rebuke of the cult of the grammar scolds.” —The Atlantic
With wit and irreverence, lexicographer Kory Stamper cracks open the obsessive world of dictionary writing, from the agonizing decisions about what to define and how to do it to the knotty questions of ever-changing word usage.
Filled with fun facts—for example, the first documented usage of “OMG” was in a letter to Winston Churchill—and Stamper’s own stories from the linguistic front lines (including how she became America’s foremost “irregardless” apologist, despite loathing the word), Word by Word is an endlessly entertaining look at the wonderful complexities and eccentricities of the English language.
Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn
“A love letter to alphabetarians and logomaniacs everywhere.” —Myla Goldberg, bestselling author of Bee Season
Ella Minnow Pea is a girl living happily on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop was named after Nevin Nollop, author of the immortal phrase containing all the letters of the alphabet, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”
Now Ella finds herself acting to save her friends, family, and fellow citizens from the encroaching totalitarianism of the island’s Council, which has banned the use of certain letters of the alphabet as they fall from a memorial statue of Nevin Nollop. As the letters progressively drop from the statue, they also disappear from the novel.
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The Word Exchange: A Novel by Alena Graedon
“A propulsive, twisty future-noir. . . . [Graedon’s] attention to language—and the breakdown of language—invites comparisons to writers like Anthony Burgess and Lewis Carroll.” —The Daily Beast
Books, libraries, and newspapers have at last become things of the past. Now handheld Memes allow for constant communication and entertainment. They can even anticipate our needs, dialing the doctor before we know we’re sick, or prompting us with words we can’t recall. Yet a few dedicated wordsmiths are still laboring on the final print edition of the North American Dictionary of the English Language. But one evening, right before it’s released, Anana Johnson finds that the chief editor—her father—has vanished.
In alternating points of view, Anana and her bookish colleague Bart follow their only clue, the word ALICE, down the proverbial rabbit hole, into subterranean passages, the stacks of the Mercantile Library, and secret meetings of an anti-Meme underground resistance, racing closer to the truth about Anana’s father’s disappearance and discovering a frightening connection to the growing “word flu” pandemic.
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A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers: A Novel by Xiaolu Guo
“A fast, breezy read, don’t be so easily entertained as to miss the many nuances—beyond the most obvious definitions are deeper, more satisfying meanings.” —San Francisco Chronicle
From one of our most important contemporary Chinese authors: a novel of language and love that tells one young Chinese woman’s story of her journey to the West—and her attempts to understand the language, and the man, she adores. Zhuang—or “Z,” to tongue-tied foreigners—has come to London to study English, but finds herself adrift, trapped in a cycle of cultural gaffes and grammatical mishaps. Then she meets an Englishman who changes everything, leading her into a world of self-discovery. She soon realizes that, in the West, “love” does not always mean the same as in China, and that you can learn all the words in the English language and still not understand your lover. And as the novel progresses with steadily improving grammar and vocabulary, Z’s evolving voice makes her quest for comprehension all the more poignant. With sparkling wit, Xiaolu Guo has created an utterly original novel about identity and the cultural divide.