Simon Winchester’s Professor and the Madman recounts the mysterious history of the Oxford English Dictionary through the story of its two unorthodox creators: a professor named James Murray and his correspondent William Chester Minor, who had been declared criminally insane and institutionalized after murdering a man in a fit of paranoia. Winchester’s focus on these two atypical lexicographers (authors or editors of dictionaries) raises the question: what is a typical lexicographer like today? And what is the day-to-day process by which modern dictionary researchers decide on new entries and omissions each year?
According to Howard Jackson’s Lexicography: An Introduction, lexicography, a branch of linguistics, is divided into two separate but related camps. Practical lexicography is the process of writing and editing dictionaries, whereas theoretical lexicography (also referred to sometimes as metalexicography) is the analysis of a particular language’s vocabulary and its structural and semantic relationships. These two groups, also known as the prescriptivists (who decide what is right and wrong in language) and the descriptivists (who believe that a linguist’s job is not to tell the world what is right or wrong, but rather to analyze usage and structure), don’t get along very well.
Lexicographers build a collection of words known as a lexicon; the root word, “lex,” comes from the Greek lexis, meaning “word.” More specifically, a lexicon is an archive of lexemes, the small units in language that link related forms of a word. For example, variations on the lexeme “see” are “saw,” “sight,” “seeing,” and so on.
Lexicographers writing a dictionary entry provide the lexeme first, followed by its variations. They also deal with semantics, the area of linguistics concerned with how meaning is expressed through language. In addition, dictionary researchers include structural information about the word stem and the word’s etymology, which is the historical information regarding its evolution to modern usage.
In other words, a lexicographer must know what words exist in a language, what those words mean and the variations in their usage, the structure of language, how it evolves, and what relationships exist among words.
The Lexicographer’s Dilemma
The educator George Sampson wrote in 1921, “There is no need to define standard English. We know what it is and there’s an end [to it]. We know standard English when we hear it just as we know a dog when we see it, without the aid of definition.”
Do we? What exactly is “standard English,” and how did it come to be the standard? Linguists and lexicographers are still unclear on the answers to these questions, and rely only vaguely on eighteenth-century grammarians who supposedly prescribed our modern idea of proper English. This, according to Jack Lynch, is the “lexicographer’s dilemma.”
Lynch’s book The Lexicographer’s Dilemma is an attempt to trace “the notion that some versions of the language are correct and others wrong.” Shakespeare had no such concerns: an excerpt from Love’s Labour’s Lost, as it appeared in the First Folio of 1623, reveals many “capricious” spellings: “He draweth out the thred of his verbositie … I abhor such phanaticall phantasims … ” Forget that these spellings differ from our modern usage; there is so much inconsistency in records from that time that it seems seventeenth-century scribes just wrote words how they sounded, without any concern for “proper English,” and there were no English dictionaries to explain what was right and wrong. Today, words from other languages enter our lexicon all the time as well, and it’s a lexicographer’s job to make sense of all the chaos that is the English language.
You Down with DDP?
Most lexicographers use the Dictionary Development Process (DDP) to compile entries. DDP is based on semantic theory; according to SIL International, a language-development organization, there is “substantial evidence” that the human brain organizes words through a giant network of relationships. These relationships, what linguists call lexical relations, are made up of word clusters called semantic domains.
DDP uses a list of 1,800 semantic domains to facilitate the dictionary-word-collection process. For each domain, a set of questions and sample words prompts speakers of a language to think of the words that belong to the domain. For example, under the domain for “sun” is the question “What words refer to the rising of the sun? ‘Rise,’ ‘sunrise,’ ‘dawn.’” Lexicographers often hold two-week workshops with fifteen to thirty participants who are trained in the DDP method; these groups review the questions and sample words, then brainstorm all the other words that belong to each domain, along with a simple definition of each term. Most of these workshops yield ten thousand to fifteen thousand words and idioms. Afterward, the lexicographers expand this classified word list into a simple dictionary.
How Does a Word Become a Word?
The Global Language Monitor reports that the number of words in the English language is about to reach one million, but this is a controversial claim. Word collecting with the DDP method isn’t enough; lexicographers also have to distinguish between slang words and proper usage, or decide that there should be no distinction between the two. Generally, if a word is “attested”—if speakers of a language list it as a term with a set meaning that they come across often—most dictionaries will include it, but every lexicon has its own criteria for inclusion.
There is no absolute rule in English for determining whether a particular spelling is correct or not. As long as a disputed spelling can be supported with references, a lexicographer will usually include it in a dictionary, either as its own entry or as a line item under “variant spellings” of a word. This is especially true if the spelling is proven to be a regional or historical variation.
Lexicographers Enter the Lists
“Standard” English is constantly evolving, which makes a lexicographer’s job both challenging and exciting. Dictionary researchers reach into the haze of word usage and attempt to clarify their findings so that we can all have a set of rules by which we can understand one another. They trace the history of long-used words to help speakers better apprehend their meaning, as well as decide at what point words like “xerox” and “Google” should enter the lexicon. That’s a tough job, one that every kid writing a school paper and every freelance writer submitting an article about lexicographers should appreciate.