When your livelihood involves plying words rather than, say, grinding coffee beans or uploading cat photographs or welding slabs of sheet metal, your success or failure depends on skill and knowledge, to be sure. It also depends on a sixth sense that, even though the words in question may be English ones, has a German name: sprachgefühl. It means, literally, “a feeling for language” – sprach is related to English “speech,” and fühl to “feel” – and like some other mouth-filling German words (weltanschauung, gemütlichkeit, schadenfreude) seems both slightly untranslatable and immediately, intuitively understandable.* With sprachgefühl, you’ve either got it or you don’t.
“We are Sprachgefühl.” from a cartoon guide for German-language learners called, appropriately, Sprachgefühl.
In her wonderful new book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, returns repeatedly to sprachgefühl to sum up one of a lexicographer’s most valuable assets:
Sprachgefühl is a slippery eel, the odd buzzing in your brain that tells you that “planting the lettuce” and “planting misinformation” are different uses of “plant,” the eye twitch that tells you that “plans to demo the store” refers not to a friendly instructional stroll on how to shop but to a little exuberance with a sledgehammer. Not everyone has sprachgefühl, and you don’t know if you are possessed of it until you are knee-deep in the English language, trying your best to navigate the mucky swamp of it. I use “possessed of” advisedly: You will never have Sprachgefühl, but rather Sprachgefühl will have you, like a Teutonic imp that settles itself at the base of your skull and hammers at your head every time you read something like “crispy-fried rice” on a menu. The imp will dig its nails into your brain, and instead of ordering take-out Chinese, you will be frozen at the take-out counter, wondering if “crispy-fried rice” refers to plain rice that has been flash fried or to the dish known as “fried rice” but prepared in a new and exciting way. That hyphen, you think, could just be slapdash misuse, or … and your Teutonic imp giggles and squeezes its claws a little harder.
I know the feeling. Sprachgefühl is indispensable in my own line of work: creating names for companies and products. It warns me when a portmanteau name I’ve cobbled together is in fact a Frankenword (or as Jessica Stone Levy, a trademark lawyer, likes to say, a shitmanteau). It screams in pain when it encounters a name like BucketListly or Nyoombl that violates several rules of English word-formation and pronunciation. It slams the brakes when a tagline sounds clumsy or unidiomatic. And it rewards me when a name I’ve discovered or created sounds not just right for the job but also, in its way, a little delicious.
That passage of Stamper’s about sprachgefühl should give you an idea of the pleasures that await in this knowledgeable, revelatory, addictive, and often hilariously profane book. “English has a lot of synonyms for ‘fool’ or ‘idiot,’” Stamper comments in a footnote. “Perhaps you take this to mean that English speakers are mean-spirited; I simply reply that necessity is the mother of invention.” And: “People do not come to the dictionary for excitement and romance; that’s what encyclopedias are for.” And: “Now you know why we like to shorten ‘part of speech’ to ‘POS.’ The abbreviation also stands for ‘piece of shit,’ and we find it a fitting, oddly comforting double entendre.” If you’ve ever wondered, even a little, about how dictionaries are made and what it takes to make one; if you’re curious about new words, old words, “bad” words, “wrong” words (like “irregardless,” which turns out to have a fascinating history I’d known nothing about), and made-up etymologies (“fornication under consent of the king”) – well, this is obviously a book you can’t live without. Even the acknowledgments are a treat: They’re listed in alphabetical order like dictionary entries, complete with pronunciation guides, definitions, and example sentences, from agent (“a person who acts as a representative for someone … and encourages, protects, advises, or kicks the ass of their client”) to wonder (“I can never say enough about Josh Stamper, my husband, friend, and co-laborer in creative endeavors, who is for me a daily wonder”).
I should mention here that although I internet-know Kory Stamper, and once interviewed her for a Visual Thesaurus column about the use of dictionary definitions in branding, I did not receive an advance review copy of Word by Word: I happily shelled out for it myself. Nor did I read any reviews or attend any bookstore readings. (There haven’t been any bookstore readings on the West Coast, and I hope Pantheon Books corrects this oversight right away.) So you can imagine my drop-jawed surprise when I reached page 98 and discovered my name.
I’m not actually a copy editor, but that’s OK.
You’ll have to take my word for it when I say I would have loved the book anyway.
* Yes, in German all those words, being nouns, would be capitalized. But because we’ve adopted them into English, we get to change the rules.