The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, January 17, 2022

Lexicography FAQs: hard words

The other night I dreamt that I had an app on my phone that kept pinging obscure words at me that I had to define at the same time as I was trying to pack up to move house. 


Having been deep into a lexicography project for the past few months, I’m loving being paid to play with words all day, but at the same time, it’s clearly messing with my head!

It made me think of one of the questions that people often ask when I say I’m a lexicographer - how I know what the ‘hard’ words mean. My first response is usually that as someone who works primarily on ELT dictionaries, we tend not to get very many ‘hard’ words to deal with. Learner’s dictionaries focus more on high frequency words because they’ll be the ones learners are most likely to come across and need to know. Back in the days of print dictionaries, space constraints largely dictated which words would be included. Crudely speaking, we started with the most frequent words and worked our way down the frequency list until we’d filled the number of pages we had space for. Of course, in a more digital age, those constraints no longer apply and the distinction between learner’s dictionaries and those aimed at L1 English speakers is becoming more blurred.

Frequency notwithstanding though, at the top end of advanced learner’s dictionaries, you do sometimes come across words you’re not familiar with and over the years, I’ve worked on a number of projects that have gone beyond the confines of general ELT, such as working on the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English and on non-ELT projects, including the Oxford Dictionary of English. So, yes, I do have to deal with words that are either right on the edges of my knowledge or that I just don’t have a clue about.

Connections and derivatives

At the easier end of the scale, you’re sometimes faced with words that are related to those already covered in the dictionary you’re working on. A lot of my work on ODE, for example, was adding or upgrading run-ons – words that are tagged onto the end of other entries but don’t get a full entry and definition of their own. So, you might find contentedly and contentedness as run-ons at the end of the entry for contented.

Oxford Dictionary of English (3e)

If you’re upgrading a run-on to a full entry, it’s sometimes as simple as adapting the definition from the existing entry to the new part of speech and adding some examples. You still need to do a corpus check though – firstly to source the examples, but also to make sure the word does just mirror its root word in terms of usage. For example, looking at corpus cites for the word deportable recently, it was immediately clear that it broadly means “can be deported”, but a closer look revealed that a person can be deportable – a deportable immigrant/foreign national – but there are also deportable crimes/offences, i.e. ones that someone can be deported for. So, both of these uses needed to be reflected in the entry.

Checking other dictionaries

Another question I often get asked is whether we just copy stuff from other dictionaries. The answer is “No, but …” Dictionaries all have their own style guidelines which dictate how definitions are worded. Learner’s dictionaries have a defining vocabulary; a list of words you’re allowed to use in definitions. There are pages of guidelines about all the other little details such as register labels, regional and spelling variants, and how grammatical information, collocations, etc. are shown. And examples are all drawn from the specific publisher’s corpus, along with guidelines about how many examples to include, how they should be edited, presented, etc.

That said, I do often consult other dictionaries to check my intuitions. I’ll always look at the corpus data first and try to form my own impression of a word, even if in the case of completely unknown words, it’s a bit of a vague one. Then I’ll look at other dictionaries, often 3 or 4 others, to see whether my impressions were in track and then go back to the corpus evidence again. Sometimes, the other dictionaries confirm quite straightforwardly what I was thinking, sometimes they highlight a usage I hadn’t spotted, so I’ll go back to the data to see whether I can find examples. Sometimes different dictionaries disagree, and very occasionally, they just don’t cover the word at all.

Other reference sources:

When it comes to specialized, technical and academic words, I often find that I need to dig a bit further. Sometimes I find myself looking at definitions from other dictionaries but feeling that I still don’t really understand the concept. That’s not to say those entries are lacking, dictionary definitions are about trying to capture the essence of a word as concisely as possible, they’re not about explaining complex concepts in endless detail.  In those cases, I seek out other reference sources, often specialist technical or academic websites that have fuller explanations. It’s one of my favourite bits of the job but can be challenging too. I’ll usually try and look at a mix of sources including some nice simple undergraduate guides if I can find them, as well as the proper technical stuff. Then when I think I’ve got my head around a concept, I’ll try and synthesize it all into an appropriate definition. When it’s an idea within the humanities and social sciences, I often feel like I’ve pinned it down well. In the hard sciences and computing though, it can feel like a half-understood approximation! I was pleased to fall back on my A level in Statistics recently when trying to understand probability density function, but found myself stumped by multi-phase and premeiotic … which is why we have:

Spec checks:

Thankfully, as lexicographers, we aren’t expected to be omni-experts! Anything we’re unsure about, we can flag up for a specialist check so it can be referred to a subject specialist … who’ll probably laugh at our lay attempts to define a techy term before they completely rewrite it!

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