Lexicographer  What They Do

Just the Facts

Insider Info

dotA 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.

dotMichael 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."

dotTo 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.

dotLexicographers 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.

dotBeth 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."

dotLexicographers 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.

dotMost 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."

dotMost lexicographers work for publishing companies, colleges or universities. Other lexicographers work for companies that develop computer applications.

At a Glance

Determine the fate of old and new words

  • Lexicographers are the people who design and develop traditional and electronic dictionaries
  • It is possible, though tough, to become a freelance lexicographer
  • A degree in English is helpful, but not absolutely necessary