Merriam-Webster defines a lexicographer as the "author or publisher of a dictionary". The job sounds simple enough, but the work used to research and write definitions like the one above requires a unique combination of skills. Lexicographers must be passionate about words without being presumptuous, knowledgeable, uncoated, and analytical enough to treat language as a science while being creative enough to use tricky words like art and to define love .
To learn more about being a lexicographer, Mental Floss spoke with some of the world's leading dictionaries. Here's what they have to say, where to find new words, what flows into the editing process, and how they really feel to literally define as "figuratively".
Being a lexicographer does not require a specific degree.
There are a number of different ways to enter lexicography. Most people who write and edit dictionaries have a humanities background, but usually no specific degree or education is required to become a lexicographer. Emily Brewster, Lexicographer for Merriam-Webster since 2000, studied linguistics and philosophy in duplicate. She says to Mental Floss: "Many people have an English background. There are some editors with a linguistic background. But if your job defines the vocabulary of the English language, expertise can be applied in any field. We have science editors, we have people who specialize in chemistry, specialists in law, so any kind of expertise can make you a better definer.
According to Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer who worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and Random, House Dictionaries, a lexicographical education, may be a real distaste for employers. "There was a university that once offered a degree in lexicography, but no dictionary house would ever hire someone with a degree in lexicography. […] In general, the people who teach this are probably not experienced practical lexicographers. and the kinds of things you need to do the work are different than the ones academics would study when you study lexicography. "Students studying lexicography at the Université de Lorraine in France learn, for example, etymology, polysemy (the existence of multiple meanings) for a word) and lexicological analysis. A class can provide helpful background information on the topic, but does not necessarily provide the learners with the skills and instincts they need to find and define new words.
Too much education, regardless of topic, can also affect the chances of someone working for a dictionary. "In general, you want someone with something, but not too much education in some kind of general humanities discipline," says Sheidlower. "Not someone with a Ph.D., because people with a Ph.D. tend to think that you can spend the rest." Your life studies things, and when you actually work for a dictionary, you have a list of 50 things to do by the end of the week. The fact that one or all of them might be super interesting does not mean that you can spend three weeks studying the same thing.
2. Lexicists do not decide which words are "right."
The role of dictionaries is widely misunderstood by the public: lexicographers do not decide which words are valid and determine how they should be used. Instead, they find the words that already exist and do their best to show how they are used in the real world. "This is something that non-lexicographers in particular have problems with," says Sheidlower, "but there is no dictionary task It is to say what is common in the language, and if people use something other than what is traditionally used, the thing will go in regardless of whether you like it or not. "
3. Lexicographers know that their decisions can lead to controversy – and not always for the reasons you think.
Even though lexicographers do not consider themselves linguistic goalkeepers, many people still see them that way. This can lead to controversy when a word or definition is included in the dictionary that people disapprove of. A current example is the inclusion of the word in in Merriam-Webster as a non-binary pronoun. "That got a lot of attention," says Sheidlower. But as he explains, the dictionary did not invent the use – it just acknowledged its existence. "Singular that they trace back to the 14th century – also non-binary that they trace back to the 18th century. … New is not necessarily bad, but these things are not new. "
Words that fall outside of sensitive social and political realms can also provoke outrage." A classic example is the definition of literally as "figurative." "People hate that, they hate it so much "Brewster says," But it's old, it's proven, and if we did not type it, we'd say the word is not used that way, and the word is used that way, and it's been used that way since Charles Dickens , It is not our job to judge whether a word or a use is a good word. Our job is to report words that are set in the language. "
. 4 Lexicographers add hundreds of new words to the dictionary each year …
The language is constantly evolving, meaning that the work of a lexicographer never ends. Brewster estimates that on Merriam-Webster.com about 1000 words are added each year, including new senses for existing words. The last sentence consisted of 533 new terms and uses not pronounced by highly specific words such as non-Rhotisch (the Boston custom of not writing the letter r unless followed by a vowel ). to Instagram-friendly slang like vacay .
. 5 Lexicographers must also be choosy.
Every year more new words are added to the dictionary than fit on the covers of the largest dictionary. To give readers an up-to-date picture of the English language without overworking themselves, lexicographers must selectively select which words make the cut. As Brewster explains, every word that is included in the Merriam-Webster dictionary meets certain criteria. "We have to have significant evidence that a word is used over a long period of time," she says.
These standards are somewhat vague for a reason. Taking into account the popularity and perseverance of a new word, the editors can decide for themselves what is considered "significant proof" and "longer time" in themselves.
Brewster explains: "For example the verb Tweet as in the Twitter sense broke out very suddenly in the language, so that was a case where it quickly became clear that our readers would be served, By contrast, you can say that a term such as adorkable takes a longer time to meet these criteria in order to be in the language for a longer period of time because we do not want to enter words Lexicographers are struggling with words like love .
Lexicography is most of the time methodical and scientific work, but can become subjective – if ever you Having had trouble defining a term without using a related word, anyone who wrote their entry in the dictionary is likely to encounter the same problem. " Art or Poetry or Love is notoriously hard to define, as its meanings are extremely broad. One can not say it exactly, "Sheidlower says." The word itching is very difficult to define, trying to define the word itching without the word Scratch is very difficult, I'll let you think about it for a moment. "(In case you were wondering, Merriam-Webster defines itching as" an uncomfortable, irritating feeling on top of the Skin, which is usually the result of mild stimulation of pain receptors. "Pretty much.)
Lexicographers rarely argue about words.
If you want to engage in lively debate about the value of certain words with other language enthusiasts, lexicography may be not the right career for you, most of the work is done in peace in front of a computer, and conflicts that are more passionate than a polite e-mail are rare. " People think we are sitting around a table arguing about the merits of a word. Or say, "Yes, that word should come in!" Or "Yes, that word should never come in," says Brewster. "It's actually very quiet, lonely work, you can speak for a word, but it's all in writing, so when I make a definition for a word, I'll say that we have evidence that it's been that since that date exists and has appeared in all these different types of publications, we are not very emotional in these matters, I think we are much more biologists than experts. "
8. Several lexicographers look at each entry.
Compiling a dictionary is a collaborative work. According to Brewster, a single word entry must pass through multiple editors before it is ready for publication. As a definitor – as most people think when they think of a lexicographer – it sets the process in motion. "As General Definer, it is my job to define the entire non-technical vocabulary in the language. But this varies widely, from economic terms such as the definition of dark money to pronouns and prepositions to informal terms such as twerking .
After you work out a definition, it also goes through the cross-reference editor (the person who makes sure that all other relevant entries are addressed), the pronunciation editor, the etymologist (who retraces the historical origins of the word) and the person who enters it into the system, the copy editor and the proofreader.
. 9 Lexicographers promise that they do not judge how you speak.
You can assume that someone who lives by defining words is an advocate of language rules. But lexicographers may understand better than anyone that there is no right way to speak English, and the "right" version of a language is determined by their speakers. "Sometimes, when people find out I'm working on a dictionary, they worry that I'll judge how they write or speak, and nothing could be further from the truth," says Erin McKean, the lexicographer responsible for the Online dictionary Wordnik is responsible for mental floss. "I love English and I love the different ways to speak and write English. I ask you much more often to come up with a word for me than to criticize the words you use! "So, if you're in a conversation with a dictionary editor, you can use Slang and swap ] and Next – You're in a safe room.
10th Do not ask lexicographers to pick a favorite word.
Lexicographers know more words than the average person. However, if you ask them to choose a favorite, they may refuse to respond. "You can not play favorites," says Sheidlower. "You need to type in words you do not like, you can not spend more time looking for words you like, it's not personal. […] Just as if you're a parent, you're not allowed to have that one child say is your favorite, which is generally the metaphor that lexicographers use when asked this question. "
11. The Internet facilitates the work of a lexicographer.
Throughout most of the professional history, lexicographers found new words by reading as many books as possible. Reading is still an important part of their job, but thanks to the Internet, they have a wider choice of materials than ever before. Emily Brewster cites Google Books and online corpora – collections of textual clippings from various fields that sometimes refer to a particular topic – as some of her favorite sources for researching new words and their definitions and origins. However, your most reliable resource is a popular social media site. "I generally like Twitter a lot," says Brewster. "I can access a variety of sources via Twitter. It's a really good network to get in touch with all sorts of publications. "