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What is a Lexicographer?

By Harriet Staff

Here’s the answer, via Oxford Dictionaries:

Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, famously defined a lexicographer as ‘A writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge’. He also said, in the entry for dull, that ‘To make dictionaries is dull work’. Of course, his tongue was firmly in his cheek, noted wit that he was (he might also have said ‘A person against whom people are reluctant to play Scrabble’, had Scrabble been invented at the time).

All joking aside, his words do hint at the meticulous work that a lexicographer undertakes every day: checking facts, ensuring that the bibliography is accurate, weighing up the merits of this word versus that word in writing the perfect definition. The moniker ‘lexicographer’ does have a certain ring to it that ‘dictionary editor’ simply doesn’t. So if I feel like impressing someone when they have enquired what I do for a living, I answer “I’m a lexicographer”. It tends to invite questions, the first often being “What’s that then?” This question provides me with the chance to wax lyrical about the various words I have worked on, how you come up with the perfect definition (the aim of every lexicographer), how you manage to encapsulate various nuances of meaning into one meaningful sentence, how finding that wonderfully early quotation can put a smile on your face that lasts the whole day…

I could go on about the joys and trials of being a lexicographer until your eyes glaze over (glaze, sense 3: ‘lose brightness and animation’). But instead, I give you this poem, written by Dr Robert Ilson, which aims to encapsulate the lexicographer’s concerns in 14 lines.

Sorry, you’ll have to make the jump for the poem, but if you do surf over you could enter to win a set of Oxford Rhyming Dictionaries. All you have to do? Write a poem, of course.

Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, March 21st, 2012 by Harriet Staff.