The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Lexicography FAQs: how it looks from here

Yesterday, I was chatting to a couple of ELT friends and they were asking me what a lexicographer actually does, day-to-day and how we create dictionary entries. It's a question I get asked a lot in different forms. So here's a very quick run-down of what my work routine actually looks like.

📃 I get sent a list of words to work on in a spreadsheet. It will depend on the project as to whether they're words that need completely new entries created or are words with existing entries to be revised or added to.

🔍 If I'm creating new entries for words that aren't already in the dictionary I'm working on, for whatever reason, I start off with a corpus search. I use the (publisher's own) corpus to research how the word is used and pin down the meaning - or meanings. For some words, the corpus data will give me enough information to come up with a definition, for more "difficult" words, I might refer to other resources to get my head around it - see my post here about hard words.

For reasons of confidentiality, this is not a screenshot of a publisher's corpus - it's the Timestamped JSI web corpus accessed using my personal account - but it uses the same Sketch Engine software we generally work with

⌨️ Then I go into an app called Entry Editor where I actually create the entry. This is a mock-up entry I just created. As you can see, there are several panels. The one on the right is where I type in the various bits of information needed to create a dictionary entry, all structured within tags. So, you can see at the top, the headword, the word that appears at the top of the entry. Below that is all the stuff about part of speech, grammar labels, regional and usage labels, spelling variants, etc. There are also spaces for the IPA pronunciations which I don't fill in, these get added later by a pron specialist. Then underneath that you have the definition and then example sentences.

Click to enlarge

✏️ The definitions in learner's dictionaries are written using what's known as a DV or defining vocabulary. This is a list of (high frequency) words that as lexicographers we're "allowed" to use in definitions in order to make sure that the defs are as clear and simple as possible. Each project will have a slightly different DV (put together by the publisher) and slightly different rules about how to deal with words that really can't be defined without using non-DV words.

🔍 After I've composed and entered the definition, then I'll fill in the other information using the corpus. Can I see that the word's mostly used in American sources? If it's a noun, is it used countably, uncountably or both? Is it usually one word or two words or hyphenated? (I'll use corpus stats to decide and add spelling variants as necessary.) Then I look at the patterns the word's typically used in - collocations, typical subjects/objects, colligation, etc. - and try to choose corpus examples that reflect the most typical uses. How many examples get added will depend to a degree on the frequency of the word (common words will typically get more examples than low-frequency ones) and the guidelines for the particular project. And example sentences will also get slightly edited to comply with corpus permissions (i.e. to make them unidentifiable) and to make them work as stand-alone sentences of an appropriate length. Then I'll add any extra bits as needed for the particular project, such as synonyms, antonyms, cross-references, usage notes, etc.

📄 As I add text to the right-hand panel, it comes up in WYSIWYG form in the centre panel. This is useful to read through the entry in a slightly more readable form to check that everything looks okay and reads well before I save it and upload it to the publisher's database.

✅ And that's it, when I've finished one entry, I upload it and move onto the next word on my list. Harmless drudgery, but often fascinating and sometimes head-scratchingly challenging in a way that keeps a word nerd like me happy.

Footnote: scribblynonsense will, perhaps sadly, not be appearing in a dictionary anytime soon. I did check to see if I could find any corpus evidence for it, but I couldn't find a single example, so I deleted the entry without uploading it

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