Lexicography is basically all about compiling dictionaries.
It’s about sitting in a stuffy, darkened, room carefully going over words: examining them, investigating them, analyzing them. It’s about asking what exactly words are and what they mean. Perhaps even why people use one word over another.
And then writing it all down.
But although it might sound fairly straightforward, there’s a lot more to it than that. Questions a lexicographer needs to ask include:
- Who is the dictionary for? A native speaker or a learner? A young child at school or a highly educated professor?
- What needs to be included in the dictionary? Etymology? Examples of usage? How about pictures?
- If there is going to be pronunciation, should that be in the IPA or maybe using the usual alphabet?
- How should the words be organized? Alphabetically? By theme or meaning?
- What about collocations and phrases? Should they be included?
- What about delivery? Online or in print?
- What about lemmas and headwords?
- How simple should the definitions be?
- Is this going to be a monolingual or bilingual or multilingual dictionary?
And many more questions. Once you start to think about it, lexicography can get very complex and in-depth!
Etymology of Lexicography
The word, lexicography, was coined in 1680 and comes from Greek roots: λέξις or lexis which means speech or word which itself is related to λέγω or lego which has nothing to do with small plastic bricks but means speak or say in Greek.
Add to that the word γράφω or grafo (or you might like to spell this grapho) which means write and you have it: lexicography = word write.
So lexicography is all about writing words then. Often in a list with definitions: a dictionary. And as you might imagine, the person who does all this work is called a lexicographer.
The first modern lexicographer according to the Oxford History of Lexicography is Papias the Lombard who was a lexicographer before the word lexicography existed. In the mid 11th Century he wrote his Latin dictionary, Elementarium Doctrinae Rudimentum which is regarded as the first modern dictionary. The book has all the hallmarks of a modern dictionary: alphabetical words, definitions and sources.
Some people also like to talk about Aristophanes of Byzantium as being the first lexicographer; although he didn’t leave behind a dictionary he did invent a system of writing down pronunciation and punctuation – this was around 200 BCE.
There are, of course, many other notable lexicographers including Noah Webster who wrote a significant American English dictionary, Albert S. Hornby who wrote a significant learner’s dictionary and others, many of whom wrote dictionaries which have helped influence the way we speak and write.
Noted lexicographer Samuel Johnson famously defined a lexicographer as a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words. He is shown in the picture above, a first day cover for a set of commemorative stamps from the UK.
The International Journal of Lexicography
Meanwhile the International Journal of Lexicography is one of the better known publications about lexicography. It was launched in 1988 and is concerned with every aspect of lexicography across all languages (although it focuses on European languages).
It’s published 4 times a year and includes reviews or dictionaries, articles about compiling dictionaries and lots and lots of words.
For more on this, see the journal homepage here.
Etymology – a look at where words come from.
Choosing a Good Dictionary – how to make the most of lexicographers’ work and choose the right dictionary for your classroom