Word-loving people seem to know who they are early in life. They’re the kids who find dictionaries at least as absorbing as children’s books. And instead of asking parents or teachers why the sky is blue, they ask why the sky is called blue.
Where I spent my first years, in Santa Cruz, California, the most alluring language was to be found in the colorful compound words that cropped up everywhere. At school, there were earthquake
drills and field trips, say, to a classmate’s family strawberry
farm. Our house sat in a redwood
forest populated by...