A lexicographer is the author or editor of a dictionary. But they do more
than just define words. They help plan the content of dictionaries designed
for particular users.
Based on these special needs, lexicographers have to decide what words
to include in a dictionary and what words to leave out.
Michael Agnes is editor-in-chief of Webster's New World Dictionary. "We're
constantly monitoring language. Lexicographers are always on the lookout for
new words -- and we want to discover new meanings for old words.
"Lexicographers read lots of different things to see how the language is
changing. We read the TV Guide, major newspapers, novels, magazines, technical
books. We listen to dialog on television, conversations overheard on the bus.
Anything we come across is fair game."
To determine if a word should be included in their dictionary, lexicographers
use specialized computer databases. These databases store information about
language from many different sources -- from the Bible to popular literature
to song lyrics.
Using these databases, lexicographers can measure how often a specific
word is used. They can record how it's used by a specific segment of the population
-- teenagers, for instance, or teachers, lawyers or doctors. The databases
can also show how words are used, what the different meanings are for the
same word and how they are combined to form new terms or phrases.
Lexicographers may study the origin of a word or phrase and determine its
correct spelling and pronunciation. They study existing dictionaries to see
how others define a particular word and how its meaning has changed over time.
Beth Boda works hard to write new, clear definitions for established words.
Boda is a freelance lexicographer currently working on a dictionary for people
who are learning English.
"We're limited to the words we can use in our definitions," she says. "We
must keep them simple. In addition to writing a definition for each word,
I write examples of how the word is used, and give words that are often used
along with the word I'm defining."
Lexicographers usually work 35 to 40 hours a week, depending on the project
and deadlines. Although they may work long hours alone, lexicographers often
need good people skills because they have to work closely with others.
Most lexicographers work with senior editors, researchers, data entry clerks,
subject matter experts or other lexicographers. Senior dictionary editors
like Sidney Landau, manager of the North American reference department for
Cambridge University Press, work with publishing executives.
"Dictionaries are a group project," says Agnes. "As a lexicographer, your
work will be checked by other people. A definition is based on hard data.
"The lexicographer can't write a definition based on their opinion of what
they think a word means. We write definitions based on what the evidence shows
the meaning to be. We just report the facts."
Most lexicographers work for publishing companies, colleges or universities.
Other lexicographers work for companies that develop computer applications.
Determine the fate of old and new words