The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

“Then we’ll write the dictionary”: underestimating the lexicographic task

Last year, I became a member of the expert panel for the AS Hornby Trust Dictionary Research Awards (ASHDRA). The awards are designed to fund dictionary-related research – that might include research into dictionary usage or research aimed at developing new resources, for example in areas not covered by conventional dictionaries or for under-resourced contexts.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a flurry of Zoom meetings with my fellow panel members to discuss this year’s applications and decide which projects to fund. It was fascinating to read all the different proposals that came in from around the world and to discuss their merits and drawbacks. There are a whole range of criteria used to assess the proposals – which I don’t plan to go into here – but this year, one issue seemed to come up across a number of the applications. In projects that had some kind of resource as an end result – not necessary a full-scale dictionary, but often a vocabulary reference for a specific context – there was an underestimate of how much time, work and expertise goes into producing a good lexicographic resource – on whatever scale.

Time and again, I found myself reading proposals that started off with an interesting aim, a solid foundation in existing research and theory, and a strong proposal for the initial research stages – involving collecting data, reviewing existing resources, maybe creating corpora, conducting interviews/questionnaires with stakeholders (such as teachers), analysing data to create word lists, etc. But then when it came to producing the actual resource, there was often just a couple of sentences which amounted to not much more than “and then we’ll write the dictionary”. Having worked as a lexicographer and materials writer for more than 20 years, my reaction was often “Woah! Hang on a moment – do you realize just how much goes into compiling a dictionary?

It often seemed to be the case that little detailed thought had gone into the design and format of the resource that would result from all the research. And perhaps of even more concern, there was rarely any mention of plans to pilot the resource with learners to see if it was something they could and would use. Some of the kinds of questions that sprang to my mind included: [click to enlarge the images]

Questions: 1. What about design and format? What will an entry actually look like on the page/screen? 2. How much information will you include in each entry? Too much may be confusing, not enough is unhelpful. 3. How will you make the information clear and accessible to learners? There’s no point including details which users don’t understand or notice and so ignore. 4. How will you pitch the content appropriately to your target audience? What’s right for university students won’t be the same for young learners. Lower-level learners will need a different approach to higher levels.

More questons: 5. Remember that what seems clear and obvious to an academic linguist caught up in language research may not be so appealing to your average learner for who probably just wants a quick and simple answer to their look-up.  6. Will your format work equally for different types of words (function words, concrete/abstract, phrases, multi-sense words …)? Can you find a format that’s consistent but flexible enough to deal with these differences? 7. Will you use a defining vocabulary? What about your defining style (traditional, full sentence or a pragmatic mix)? Will you create a style guide? 8. What about images – will you commission illustrations or use photos? Where from? Remember commissioned artwork and stock photos both cost money. And don’t forget about copyright issues!

I could go on and on. As I looked at the specific challenges of different projects, different issues sprang to mind. Creating a useful reference resource isn’t as simple as throwing the results of research down on paper.

So, how could applicants have got around this issue? In discussing cases where someone had a really promising idea but underestimated the lexicographic part of the project, one potential solution we came up with was a more scaled-back proposal that could effectively become a pilot study. In the same way that a commercial publisher would usually start off with a sample to be reviewed and piloted, researchers could put together just a small number of entries of their planned resource to pilot with students and teachers in order to work through some of the issues above, to try out different designs and formats, and hopefully, come up with something that really works for their target learners.  At the end of this process, they would come out with a solid sample that they could use as a proof of concept to move forward and seek further funding for a full-scale project. This would also, hopefully, give them a clearer idea in terms of where to focus their research efforts to create the final resource and so, to a degree, avoid wasted effort.

From my perspective, the processes of assessing and discussing the proposals has been an interesting opportunity to reflect on my own accumulated knowledge as a lexicographer; all those things you absorb over the years and start to take for granted as an ‘obvious’ part of the process of creating a vocabulary resource, but which perhaps aren’t so obvious after all.


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