The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, October 19, 2006

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.


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