The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Spelling shame

Today, I had a chiropodist's appointment. When I arrived I was asked to fill in a form with a few bits of basic personal information. No problem, until I came to 'allergies'. I have an allergy to a common antibiotic, but I can't for the life of me ever remember how to spell it! My pen hovered for a moment, then I plumped for "penecillin" ... Sat in the chiropodist's chair, the polite conversation inevitably turned to:

"So what do you do?"
"Erm, I'm a writer. I mostly write dictionaries."
"Oh really, dictionaries?! You must be very good at English."
"Well, no, not really. My spelling's terrible actually. I've probably spelt penicillin wrong on that form, haven't I?"
(Looks at the form) "Yes. ... Oh well, we're all human, aren't we?"

I feel as if I ought to be able to spell better, but there's just something about certain words that I have a mental block with. I've always been the same - at school I was always being nagged by teachers about my spelling. I think it's something to do with spelling being something you just have to learn - I've never been good at learning things by heart - I have to have some kind of logic or reasoning behind something. I can explain complex grammatical rules, but I can't remember whether it's an e or an i in the middle of words like penicillin!

Thankfully, I know which words I can't spell, so in most circumstances, I just check - I've got a pile of dictionaries on my desk, after all! I've even got my most frequent problem word on a little post-it note on my monitor ...

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Keeping up - update

One solution to fitting in a bit of professional reading:

I rarely get round to reading the IATEFL magazine I get sent every couple of months, but this afternoon, I happily spent half an hour flicking through it in the sunshine on the terrace with a couple of tea and a bit of cake from the local deli. If this weather continues, I could become distinctly better informed!

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Last night, I was filling in my census form. I was ticking along happily, writing neatly in the boxes, until I came to the section about your job. When asked, I generally say that I'm a lexicographer; it's a nice neat description of a specific job and well, it's fun to have an interesting job title! I'm fairly certainly that I put down 'lexicographer' as my job on the 2001 census, but this year, I hesitated. I actually don't do an awful lot of lexicography nowadays. I write stuff, I edit things, I do corpus research, a bit of reviewing, a bit of teaching and only really occasionally work on a dictionary project. And there's something about a census form that compelled me to be accurate, so I finally plumped for the rather dull, all-encompassing "educational writer":

It's always a tricky question - on foreign visa forms, I usually go for the safe "teacher" option to avoid confusion and difficult questions from immigration officials. I once resorted to "clerical assistant" for a car insurance policy because anything that referred to "writing" seemed to put you in the same, ultra-high risk category as journalists and the like. I tried to explain to the girl that I just sat at a desk tapping stuff into a computer, thus she put me down as a clerical assistant and came up with a nice, cheap quote!

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Keeping up

Earlier this week, I was looking at iT's an online magazine for English language teachers that's edited by a fellow freelancer, Robert Campbell. Robert had sent me the link, so I went to have a quick look and nearly an hour later found that I was still browsing around reading interesting bits and pieces and jotting down notes about books that I might think about buying. It made me realise how rubbish I am generally at keeping up with what's going on in ELT.

Amongst certain groups of colleagues, especially fellow lexicographers, I often feel quite the opposite. I know, from experience, that it's easy to stay trapped at your desk, trawling through corpora, caught up in the minutiae of language usage and rather lose sight of your end users. Because I teach, albeit only occasionally, and because I also work in quite a lot of different areas of ELT, I hope I don't let myself get too cut off from the world beyond my desk.

There are other colleagues though who always seem to know about all the latest ideas, to have read all the latest articles and to be participating in numerous online discussions and ELT forums. It makes me wonder where they find time to do any paid work! Or do they, perhaps, view all that time spent "keeping up" as part of their job? And should I be doing more of it? I suppose my main way of keeping in touch is to go to events - things like the annual IATEFL conference that's coming up next month, or the occasional one-off event like the recent BALEAP PIM. To me, they always seem to be worthwhile because not only do they give me an opportunity to catch up with new ideas and get a feel for what people are talking about, but they also provide a chance to network and catch up with friends and colleagues at the same time.

Is the odd few days here and there enough though? I often think it would be good to read more, but never seem to find the time. I wonder if perhaps I should be setting aside maybe a couple of hours in my working week for keeping up-to-date.

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Thursday, March 03, 2011

In praise of paper

RSI Awareness Day came round again on February 28. Perhaps appropriately though, I’ve been away for a few days, so I wasn’t at my desk on Monday. At this time of year, I generally try to find a new angle on safer, more ergonomic ways of working with computers, but this year as I've noticed that more and more tasks both at work and in everyday life seem to be becoming computer-based, I thought it might be time to extol the virtues of working away from your screen.

In general, I’m in favour of using less paper, on eco-principles. When it comes to work though, I’m quite a fan of a bit of paper now and then … recycled, of course! One of the main reasons why excessive computer use can lead to RSI and other health problems is because it's so easy for your body to get fixed in one position for long periods of time, often in an unhealthy posture, repeating the same little movements, with the mouse or keyboard. Most ergonomics experts recommend you take mini breaks every 10 to 15 minutes where you move your arms away from your keyboard and mouse, change your overall sitting position, let your muscles relax a bit and take your focus away from the screen - because your eye muscles need to relax too.

Now the principle of mini breaks sounds very simple, but in practice, even someone as committed to healthy working as I am, can find themselves caught up in a piece of work and not having moved for maybe an hour. So one way I try to force myself to move away from my screen and keyboard as regularly as possible is to build non-computer-based media into my usual working routine. Mostly, that's just a fancy way of saying I write things down on paper!

I have a big A4 notebook on my desk which I use for writing down all manner of notes. I might be working from one document on screen, but then making notes on paper, which I then read through, scribble over and doodle on before they make it back into an electronic format of some kind. It's not exactly a revolutionary idea, but just that action of putting down my mouse and picking up a pen instead, switching my focus from the screen to a piece of paper, I know gives my body a bit of a break. And by keeping everything in one big notepad, I don't lose things and can always look back through the pages if I need to find something.

I also have an old-fashioned paper desk diary that I use not just for writing down appointments, but to leave myself reminders about upcoming deadlines or people to contact. I note down the hours I've worked on each project, when I've sent off a piece of work or invoiced for a job - all of which, as a freelancer, helps me keep track of what I'm doing, all in one place. I know I can get some fancy scheduling software to do the same thing, but that wouldn't give me the excuse of looking away from my screen, swivelling round in my chair and picking up a pencil - a great little mini break.

And perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who works in publishing, I'm a big fan of books. I have a lovely bookcase of dictionaries and although most of them are available online for free, I'd much rather thumb through to the appropriate page than open another window in my browser.

Of course, everyone will have different ways of working and different tasks that they need to do, but I think that anyone can build a bit of paper back into their working routine for the sake of giving their body a break from their keyboard and screen.

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