What is a lexicographer?
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.
Day Job: Lexicographer
Can you skip backwards? Can a photograph
Of flowers in a vase be a still life?
Was Ms R. Bailey Ms U. Fanthorpe’s wife?
Are wasting time and killing time the same?
If “Ann” is Carol Duffy’s middle name
Was “Luther” Martin King’s? Tough work? Not half!
And yet it must be done – and done so fast
There’s hardly left a moment to remember
To make sure June’s been treated like December.
The product’s never perfect but it may
Help language-learners’ progress on their way
To being language-lovers till at last
They ask me this and make me brood upon it:
Is what my explanation is a sonnet?
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