The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Odd job?

A couple of evenings ago, I went to see a stand-up comedian who picked out several members of the audience to talk to, largely about their jobs. He picked on an IT consultant, an estate agent and a “tile inspector”. Unsurprisingly, the man who spent his days inspecting tiles turned out to be the best source of comic material and I found myself breathing a huge sigh of relief that I wasn’t sat near the front. What would he have made of a lexicographer?!

Although my profession can be a good source of interesting small talk when you meet new people and means that you tend to be remembered, there are times when you just don’t feel like going into it all yet again, especially when you get cornered by a particularly dull person at a party! I’ve tried being vague and just saying “I work in publishing”, but inevitably that only draws the process out and you end up explaining the whole thing eventually. And I’m just not a very good liar.

A couple of years ago, I did a round-the-world trip which involved filling in lots of immigration forms which had a space for ‘occupation’ and faced the dilemma of what to put at each new country. In some places, such as Hong Kong and the US, my instinct was to avoid complications with severe-looking immigration officials and so plumped for “teacher” - I do teach a few hours a week, so it’s not a complete lie. But was very pleased that I owned up to my true vocation going into Australia. I arrived in Sydney early in the morning rather sleepy after an overnight flight from Hong Kong and handed over the form that I’d filled in several hours earlier without much thought. “Come on, you’re gonna have to tell me!” came the excited reaction in a broad Aussie accent from the smiling immigration lady. At first I was completely thrown and wondered what on earth I’d done wrong, before it clicked - she was referring to my job. I don’t think I’ve ever had quite such a friendly, animated welcome to a country as the conversation which followed and left me smiling to myself as I wandered bleary-eyed through customs.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


One of my inspirations for starting this blog was an issue of The Author magazine (the Journal of the Society of Authors) which featured, on the back cover, photos of the places where different authors spend their time writing and included an article about Three authors who blog. So it seemed appropriate to include a picture of my own workspace:

It looks a bit of a mess, but it's developed over the past few years to fit me quite snugly. I suffer from fairly severe RSI (repetitive strain injury) and spent several years working through pain and struggling to work anything near full-time. In the past year or so though, after lots of small adjustments to my workspace, to my computer equipment and, most importantly, to the way I work, I seem to have found a relatively comfortable working environment which puts minimum strain on my rather sensitive frame. I still set off my various aches and pains occasionally, especially when I get too caught up in something or just overdo things generally, but mostly manage to plod along relatively pain-free nowadays.

FAQs 1: Why do we need more dictionaries?

When I meet new people and get to the inevitable “So, what do you do?” question, after the blank stares which meet “I’m a lexicographer” are resolved with “I write dictionaries”, one of a number of questions inevitably follows. The most common is perhaps: Why do we need new dictionaries?

Perhaps the most obvious answer is that language is always changing. There are new words coming into English all the time, in recent years particularly prompted by new technology. As someone writing for learners of English as a foreign language, I’m mainly interested in words which are in regular everyday use and which a learner is likely to come across, so don’t tend to get involved in the more trendy jargon coined by journalists or management consultants. There are still plenty of new words (or more commonly, new uses of existing words) which quickly become part of our everyday vocabulary though and so merit coverage in a dictionary. Just a few years ago, the following utterances, for example, would have seemed fairly cryptic, if not completely incomprehensible:

I’ll text you when I’m on the train.
Ring me on my mobile.
I’ll send it as an attachment.

But in the grand scheme of things, this probably isn’t the main driver of the lexicography business. There are maybe only a handful of such new words which make it into learner’s dictionaries each year. Most of the work we do is, in fact, just tweaking. Although I’ve had the luck to work on a couple of completely new dictionaries from scratch, most of the work of a lexicographer is in editing existing dictionaries to create new editions. This largely involves tweaking the way in which the information is presented, making changes to exactly what is included or left out, or simply playing around with the visual layout.

So do we really need all these new dictionaries, or is it simply a big marketing exercise?!

Well, it can sometimes seem that the changes we make are small and insignificant. Does it really matter to a reader, for example, the form in which you show a typical grammatical pattern of a word?

[T + object + ing form of verb] He left the engine running.
[VN -ing] I left the engine running.
leave sth doing sth I’ll just leave the engine running while I pop in.

My feeling is that different approaches probably suit different people and that, sadly for lexicographers who spend so much time agonising over such things, most learners don’t actually take that much notice anyway. As in any area of life, ideas about langauge learning shift with different fashions and different aspects of language are given greater or lesser stress - should we focus more on grammatical information or is it more examples that learners need? Such details do though, over time, contribute to a gradual process of development and, hopefully, improvement.

You could ask why we need new cars or televisions, when each new model isn’t very different from the last? But if we followed that principle, we’d still be starting our cars with a starting handle and settling down in front of fuzzy black and white TV screens. It’s thanks to the continued tweaking of lexicographers that those hoping to better understand English no longer have to contend with the likes of the definition below for ‘university’:

The whole body of teachers and scholars engaged, at a particular place, in giving and receiving instruction in the higher branches of learning; such persons associated together as a society or corporate body, with definite organization and acknowledged powers and privileges (esp. that of conferring degrees), and forming an institution for the promotion of education in the higher or more important branches of learning; also, the colleges, buildings, etc., belonging to such a body.