The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, March 19, 2007

Harmless drudgery

I love my job. I can’t imagine anything better for a lexicophile like myself than to spend my days exploring words in all their wonderful, complex and often puzzling variety. I love poring over data to establish how a particular word is used, debating whether two slightly different usages of a word merit separate definitions or can be lumped together, or trying to work out whether a phrase is always used in the same, fixed form or can be played about with by the speaker. As with any other job though, lexicography has its dull patches. And this afternoon, my professional mood seems to reflect the March greyness outside my window.

The reality of lexicography is that brand new dictionary projects are actually few and far between. Much of our work is in working on new editions. Like with any other producer, dictionary publishers need to keep their products fresh and up-to-date to appeal to their customers. This involves a cycle of new editions every few years. Some of these will involve radical overhauls to reflect changes in the language or to linguistic and language-learning theories, and as such, will involve new research and new writing. Many smaller-scale updates, however, are more about moving the words around on the page. Rearranging the furniture a bit rather than splashing out on redecorating. This is, admittedly, no insignificant task. Much of the art of lexicography is about finding the best way to present information. There’s just so much detail that you want to cram in, but you’re severely restricted in terms of space and don’t want your pages to appear daunting and confusing. Presenting what you have to tell in a clear, consistent and accessible way is a huge part of the task and shouldn’t be undervalued.

After weeks of scrolling through screens full of text, though, tinkering with the order of grammar labels or the format of phrases, you do start to doubt the value of what you’re doing. I’ve always wanted to do a job that I felt was in some way useful to society. I’m often amazed at some of the stunningly useless-seeming jobs that are advertised in the newspaper - do we really need more Change Management Consultants, Performance and Strategy Managers or, worse still, Direct Marketing Account Managers (surely no one actually wants or needs more junk mail!)? And although writing dictionaries perhaps isn’t an essential job, in the same way as being a farmer or a nurse might be, I like to think that helping people to learn English is, in some way, doing something practically useful.

So let’s hope that somewhere along the line, a student in some faraway country will appreciate the results of my current fiddling and shuffling of linguistic information and that it’ll go some way towards helping them more easily unravel the mysteries of the English language.