Books on Words

Fellow word nerds, unite!

A few weeks ago, I shared a popular post: Historical Words That Should Be Revived.

The responses were heartwarming, and I was encouraged to discover other word nerds out there.

For those who enjoy this sort of thing, I have a handful of word-related books. A few readers even recommended some of their own, unprompted.

I Always Look Up the Word Egregious by Maxwell Nurnberg

Armed with a red pencil, scissors, tape, and index cards, author Maxwell Nurnberg spent years scouring The New York Times,  The New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books, with the aim of creating a new kind of vocabulary book: a vocabulary book for people who don’t need one. The result is a veritable panoply of words—drawn from the real-life context of written and spoken language.

Helena provided this suggestion.


The Liar's Dictionary by Eley Williams

An exhilarating and laugh-out-loud debut novel from a prize-winning new talent that chronicles the misadventures of a lovelorn Victorian lexicographer and the young woman put on his trail a century later to root out his misdeeds while confronting questions of her own sexuality and place in the world. In the process, she is tasked with uncovering mountweazels.

Mountweazel n. the phenomenon of false entries within dictionaries and works of reference. Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.

Thanks to Steve for the recommendation.


The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, edited by David E. Schultz and S.T. Joshi

If we could only put aside our civil pose and say what we really thought, the world would be a lot like the one alluded to in The Devil’s Dictionary. There, a bore is "a person who talks when you wish him to listen," and happiness is "an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another."

A virtual onslaught of acerbic, confrontational wordplay, The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary offers some 1,600 wickedly clever definitions to the vocabulary of everyday life. Little is sacred and few are safe, for Bierce targets just about any pursuit, from matrimony to immortality, that allows our willful failings and excesses to shine forth.


Dreyer's English, An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

As Random House’s copy chief, Dreyer has upheld the standards of the legendary publisher for more than two decades. He is beloved by authors and editors alike—not to mention his followers on social media—for deconstructing the English language with playful erudition. Now he distills everything he has learned from the myriad books he has copyedited and overseen into a useful guide not just for writers but for everyone who wants to put their best prose foot forward.

As authoritative as it is amusing, Dreyer’s English offers lessons on punctuation, from the underloved semicolon to the enigmatic en dash; the rules and nonrules of grammar, including why it’s OK to begin a sentence with “And” or “But” and to confidently split an infinitive; and why it’s best to avoid the doldrums of the Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers, including “very,” “rather,” “of course,” and the dreaded “actually.” Dreyer will let you know whether “alright” is all right (sometimes) and even help you brush up on your spelling—though, as he notes, “The problem with mnemonic devices is that I can never remember them.”

And yes: “Only godless savages eschew the series comma.”

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Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.