The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, January 02, 2023

Shifting metrics*

Given the whole end-of-year vibe, I’ve been looking back on my working year. I came across an infographic I put together at the end of 2019 [click on it to enlarge] and was interested to see just how much my working patterns have changed in the past few years.

As you can see, that year I worked on 26 different projects – that’s a lot of smallish jobs even for a freelancer. Being able to work on a variety of different things can be one of the big benefits of being freelance – variety being the spice of life and all that – but it also brings problems and isn’t always very productive, what with all the time wasted getting started on each new job (an issue I’ve written about before here).

I also delivered quite a few talks and workshops, both in-person and online. As someone who spends most of their time working alone at home, doing talks is a great way to get out and interact with people. It’s something I enjoy doing and it generally gives me a real buzz and a lift. It’s also, however, not always especially profitable.  Talks, especially at in-person events, take up a huge amount of time in preparing the talk, organizing travel arrangements, travelling, then time at the event itself. Although most of the talks I did that year were paid for in some form by publishers, some only covered expenses and those with fees attached almost never covered at the actual amount of time involved.

This year couldn’t have been more different!

For most of my working year, I’ve been working on a single long-term lexicography project, which I’ve absolutely loved! I started my ELT publishing career as a full-time lexicographer, and I continued working predominantly on learner’s dictionaries for about 7 years. I then started moving into other materials writing projects for a mix of reasons, in part because I wanted a change and a bit more variety, but also because work in lexicography was becoming sparser. Over the years, I’ve kept a foot in the lexicography camp, with occasional dictionary-related projects here and there. This is the first time for a while I’ve been able to really get my teeth into a big project though and I’m loving being back in my wordy niche.

It hasn’t been my only work this year though, there have been a number of other shorter jobs too. I wrote a focus paper for OUP about using learner’s dictionaries that was published in October and is available to download from the OUP website. I spoke at IATEFL in Belfast about some work I’d done (in 2021) on the new edition of Work on Your Idioms and I followed that up with an article about idioms for MET. I also did a sensitivity read for a new edition of an exam book, flagging up anything that might be potentially offensive or dated or that might need rethinking.

And it’s been another busy year in my role with the Hornby Trust. With several dictionary research projects finishing early in the year, I was involved in working with the researchers to edit their reports ready for publication on the Trust’s website [you can read them here]. In the summer, there were new proposals to go through and discuss with my fellow ASHDRA panel members via Zoom. We interviewed a number of the successful candidates, also via Zoom, to discuss the details of their proposals and to suggest a few tweaks. There were presentations from ASHDRA researchers at the Euralex conference in July, which I followed online. And last month, the first report from the latest cohort of ASHDRA projects came in for editing. We’d hoped to finally have an in-person meeting of the ASHDRA panel in London, but plans were thwarted by train strikes! Keeping fingers crossed an upcoming date in January can go ahead.

My favourite project of 2022 though has to have been my weather scarf. I’ve been knitting two rows a day all year in a colour based on the temperature here in Bristol at midday; blues for cold temperatures, greens for mild weather, and yellows and oranges for hot days. It’s been a moment of mindfulness each day, mostly in the space between leaving my desk for the day and starting on cooking the evening meal. It’s also made me much more aware of the weather. According to the Met Office, 2022 is set to be the hottest year ever in the UK, with record high temperatures in the summer – when I had to break into my 31°C+ dark red wool – but also much milder than average temperatures across the year – I didn’t drop back down into turquoise wool (below 10°C) until the end of November. I know I’ve inspired a few friends to create their own scarves for 2023, so I’m really looking forward to following their progress.

I’ll be starting off 2023 still happily in my lexicography groove and I have a talk accepted for IATEFL in Harrogate in April. Otherwise, I’ll be on the look-out for other interesting projects and opportunities to fit in along the way. I’d like to do some more talks, including some in-person events (ideally that don’t involve flying) if I can get myself organized to submit some proposals. I’m not making any big plans or resolutions because the first half of the year, at least, is looking likely to be a time of big upheavals outside of work. I’ll continue to tick along in my wordy niche and keep posting about words and language usage that piques my interest – *including that word metrics from the title of this post.

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Monday, December 19, 2022

Can everyone see that okay?

There’ve been a flurry of posts on social media over the past couple of weeks as people have shared news that their IATEFL proposals have been accepted for the Harrogate conference in April. I got mine too and although I won’t start planning my session until much nearer the time, it has got me thinking about an issue that’s been on my mind for a while.

Now you’ll have to bear with me a bit here, but the relevance of my story will gradually become clear …

I’ve been short-sighted since I was a kid and I’ve been wearing contact lenses since I was in my teens. It’s never been a big deal, just one of those things that I barely think about. Then a few years ago, I started struggling to read small print, like the teeny-tiny writing on the back of food packets, and I realized that as well as being short-sighted (not able to see things far away), I was starting to get long-sighted (not able to see things close-up). It’s really common in people around my age and like many of my friends, I bought myself a pair of cheap off-the-shelf reading glasses. I didn’t use them very much, except for reading those pesky cooking instructions. Anyway, when I visited my optician for a regular eye check, we chatted about it and he explained that if he updated my contact lens prescription (which slowly nudges up from time to time), then he’d make the close reading even worse. We agreed to compromise and leave the prescription as it was for the time being.


Over the next couple of years, I rubbed along okay, but I did start to notice that my ability to see certain things at a distance was getting a bit worse. It was mostly reading relatively small things a long way off, like the information boards in airports and train stations. And this is where IATEFL comes in … When I went to IATEFL in Belfast in May this year, I had a double whammy – not only did I take numerous trains to get there, and have to squint to read the boards, but when I got to the conference, I also found I couldn’t read a lot of presenters’ slides. It depended a bit on the size of the room and where I sat, but in some of the larger rooms, I had to give up even trying – they were just a smudgy blur.

It got me thinking about presentation slides and accessibility. I can’t have been the only audience member with less-than-perfect eyesight, and it did really change the experience of some talks. Here are a few of my reflections:

Background really makes a difference: It may be boring, but bold black text against a white background really was the easiest to read. Text on a coloured background, or worse still over an image, was really hard to make out.

Bigger is better: We all get told in basic presentations skills courses that we should use a minimum of 20-point text, but we don’t always stick to it. I know I’m guilty of it myself, especially when I’m presenting materials and want to show an extract from a book. It’s tough to show what you want without it coming out a bit smaller than you’d like. And well, corpus lines are just impossible! I’m not sure what the answer is here. I have tried having one slide that shows the design and layout of the material, but then a follow-up slide that pulls out just a couple of lines of text I want to focus on in a clearer format.

Reading from slides: I noticed that when I couldn’t see slides, sometimes it didn’t make any difference to following the talk, because they were just backing up what the presenter was saying. Occasionally though, the presenter would actually ask the audience to read something on a slide without reading it out for them. It’s a useful presenting technique that allows for a bit of a change of pace, gives the audience a bit of thinking time and allows them to mull something over without you talking over them, or maybe facilitates a talk-to-your-neighbour task. It’s also good for highlighting ambiguity or for word play where reading something out would give away the punchline. I don’t really know how you make those moments more accessible, except perhaps to ensure that anything your audience needs to read – as opposed to the stuff that just supports what you’re saying – is extra large and extra clear.

Anyway, getting back to my own story, I was back at my opticians recently and we agreed that maybe it was time to bite the bullet and fully correct my short sight. When I got my new prescription contact lenses, it was fabulous to have the world back in focus again! But as the optician had warned, it really threw out my close-up vision. It was no longer just the tiny small print, I struggled to read my phone and worse still, I could no longer see my computer monitor clearly. So, I’ve bought myself a second pair of specs so that I can have one pair that float around the house and another pair that stay permanently on my desk, and that I’m getting used to wearing full-time when I’m working.

I went for really big specs to use at my desk because the blur in my peripheral vision with my older, smaller ones felt distracting

Thanks to my updated prescription, I know that the slides at talks I attend in Harrogate are all going to be super-crisp, but I’m going to try to hang on to my blurry Belfast experiences when I’m designing my slides.

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Monday, November 28, 2022

My Word of the Year 2022: a year late?

At this time of year, dictionary publishers announce their Word of the Year (WOTY). It’s a move aimed largely at attracting publicity and it generally provokes various reactions in sections of the media. Different dictionaries use different criteria when choosing their WOTY, which are often missed or misunderstood by commentators, but maybe that’s part of the fun. This year’s crop so far include:

Collins have gone with a zeitgeisty buzzword: permacrisis

Cambridge went with one of their most looked-up words and a controversial Wordle US English solution: homer

Oxford have put their short-list out to a public vote: metaverse, #IStandWith, goblin mode (you have until 2 Dec to vote)

It got me mulling over what my own personal WOTY might be. I came up with quite a few key phrases that seem to have been around recently, including cost of living crisis and loss and damage (from the recent COP summit), but none of them seemed very snappy. Then as I thought back across my year, I realized that 2022 has largely been the year in which I felt I was getting back to something closer to normal post pandemic. (If we take pandemic to refer to the outbreak and spread of the disease rather than its continuing presence – which I’m all too aware of given I had my first bout of covid this summer.)


A key part of that sense of normality has been more freedom to meet up with people in person rather than online. Especially in a work context, I went to my first in-person conference for a couple of years with IATEFL in Belfast back in May and in-person meetings have started to return after a long period in which Zoom meetings became the norm.

And from a linguistic point of view, I realize it’s a word that’s slipped into being a fairly unconscious part of my vocabulary. For me at least, there was a time where I hesitated around what to call non-online interactions. Face-to-face was an obvious choice that had been around pre-pandemic but it felt a bit clunky. In some contexts, it could be reduced to f2f, but that didn’t work across speech and writing. In person as a phrase that comes after a verb is, of course, nothing new:

It was about six months before we met up in person.
... corresponded with him by e-mail and met him twice in person.
The profundity of the Kumbh Mela could only be experienced in person.
Discounted tickets must be purchased in person at the Dublin Zoo Ticket Office

[All examples in this post from the News on the Web (NOW) corpus at english-corpora.org]

What’s newer is its use as a modifier in front of a noun, mostly as a hyphenated form:

The pandemic all but stopped in-person community events.
The museum remained closed to in-person visitors for much of the year.
Restaurants and bars must close for in-person service but may remain open for pick-up or delivery.
Large, in-person gatherings like this were a rarity in 2020.

A year late?

When I looked at corpus evidence to see whether my sense of in-person coming into its own in 2022 was correct, I initially found I was behind the curve. Looking at stats from the NOW corpus, it clearly surges in use in 2020 and 2021, but actually drops off a bit in 2022.

When I looked a bit deeper though, what I found was a shift in context over time.  The top collocations through 2020 and 2021 were predominantly related to education - in-person learning, classes, instruction – which is unsurprising given the context of schooling over that period, switching between online learning and kids going back into school. This year’s top collocations though have seen a trend towards talking about in-person meetings and in-person interviews, which perhaps better reflects my own experience.

He reportedly summoned the company's software engineers to San Francisco headquarters for an in-person meeting.
If I'm facilitating an in-person meeting, I'll get to the room early to scope out the seating configuration.
The environmental impact of taking that trip for a one-hour in-person meeting becomes difficult to justify.
Whether it is a remote or in-person interview, be cautious that your answers don't seem rehearsed.

A lot of them required him to come for an in-person interview, and we were living six hours away.

I also wonder whether this will be a more enduring use. Where online education, at least at school level, was very much an emergency measure, it feels that meetings and interviews will continue to be a mix of online and in person. When we just need a quick, functional chat with a colleague, we’ll jump on a Zoom call, but when we really need a proper catch-up and to talk things over, we’ll opt for an old-school, face-to-face get-together. So, we need a retronym – a word that differentiates something that used to be the norm, but now needs to be explicitly stated, like a landline instead of a mobile phone, an acoustic guitar instead of an electric one, or a film camera instead of its now much-more-common digital counterpart. My hunch is that we’ll continue talking about in-person meetings for some time to come.

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