Do you know what the following words mean? Albumen. Foulard. Semaphore. Soubrette. Eudaemonic. Narcolepsy. Elucubrate. Vivisepulture. Pococurante. Cymotrichous. Feuilleton. Knaidel. They are all winning words from the Scripps Spelling Bee. If you wanted to learn what these words mean, you would have to look the word up in the dictionary. But who writes and edits the dictionary? A lexicographer.
A lexicographer authors and edits dictionaries. Lexicographers are technical writers who are word experts and linguists. They are fanatics about language. Maybe you have heard of famous lexicographers like Noah Webster, Pierre Larousse, William A Craigie, or Nathaniel Bailey? They created the dictionaries that we use regularly.
Dictionary companies and publishers hire lexicographers to produce dictionaries like Merriam-Webster, New Oxford American, Dictionary.com, American Heritage, Larousse, or Webster’s New World. It’s the lexicographer’s job to compile, write, edit, and evaluate dictionary entries. They provide parts of speech, spelling, origin, word development, examples, context, history, pronunciation, synonyms, antonyms, and other relevant facts pertaining to the word. The goal is to select the appropriate information so that the dictionary will appeal to the end user.
According to Google, dictionaries are “a book or electronic resource that lists the words of a language (typically in alphabetical order) and gives their meaning, or gives the equivalent words in a different language, often also providing information about pronunciation, origin, and usage.” Think about all of the words in the world and then compiling all of that information into a dictionary. Lexicographers perform a massive task!
Dictionaries come in many different forms. There are general dictionaries, legal dictionaries, medical dictionaries, slang dictionaries, translation dictionaries, and visual dictionaries to name a few. All of these dictionaries are then available in abridged or unabridged formats, pocket formats, book or electronic. What do you look for in a dictionary?
It’s the lexicographer’s job to identify and profile the users of each type of dictionary and create the best dictionary for that audience. Every dictionary is different because the lexicographer organizes words, selects phrases and examples, labels parts of speech, defines words, and writes pronunciations to cater to a specific group. The goal of a lexicographer is to ensure that a user can easily obtain the info they need.
There are two branches of lexicography that a lexicographer can pursue – practical and theoretical. Theoretical lexicography is the study of the relationship between words. Practical lexicography is the actual writing and editing of the dictionary. Most lexicographer jobs pertain to practical lexicography. Unfortunately, there are not many practicing lexicographers. The New York Times only reported 200 lexicographers working in the US.
There is no clear cut path to become a lexicographer. You have to be a wordsmith who is passionate about language. Most lexicographers have a Master’s degree in English, Etymology, Literature, Education, or Linguistics. Some are bi-lingual. They are all word experts. They all enjoy reading different dictionaries to become familiar with different formatting and styles. Almost all of them are members of the Dictionary Society of North America.
Most lexicographers ultimately find work with dictionary publishers, although there are not many lexicographer employers. The majority of lexicographers gain experience by finding freelance work before they are hired for a full time position. They must be eager to work on both book and online dictionaries. Often opportunities are posted by the Dictionary Society of North America. Once they land a job, lexicographers general make about $35,000 per year. Others are paid $25 per hour or are paid on a per project basis.
Lexicographers come from a variety of backgrounds, but they are all united by their passion for words. If you enjoy reading the dictionary, are obsessed with your word of the day calendar, are fascinated by language, or love having a rich vocabulary, then maybe a career as a lexicographer is ideal for you.
Quick Facts About Lexicographer Careers
Job Title: Lexicographer
Office: Desk based
Description: Author and edit dictionaries
Certifications/Education: Master’s degree relating to language or words
Necessary Skills: Passionate about words, Able to identify and profile audiences
Potential Employers: Dictionary publishers or Freelance
Pay: $35,000 per year or $25 per hour