Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). (Getty Images)


A lexicographer is a person who writes, compiles, and/or edits a dictionary.

Lexicographer examine how words come into being and how they change in terms of pronunciation, spelling, usage, and meaning.

The most influential lexicographer of the 18th century was Samuel Johnson, whose Dictionary of the English Language appeared in 1755. The most influential American lexicographer was Noah Webster, whose American Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1828.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • Lexicographer. A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words."
    (Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755)

  • Lumping and Splitting
    "Dictionaries are . . . based on an oversimplification which posits that words have enumerable, listable meanings that are divisible into discrete units. Such constructs come in handy because dictionary users tend to work best with clear-cut distinctions and categories that we like to classify into distinct, well-defined boxes. One of the key questions the lexicographer then faces is related to the distinction between lumping and splitting. The former term refers to the slightly different patterns of usage that are considered as a single meaning, while the latter happens when the lexicographer separates slightly different patterns of usage into distinct meanings. The burning question whether the lexicographer should apply a lumping or a splitting strategy does not just apply to monolingual dictionaries, however. A related question for bilingual lexicographers is whether sense divisions should be based upon the source language or the target language."
    (Thierry Fontenelle, "Bilingual Dictionaries." The Oxford Handbook of Lexicography, ed. by Philip Durkin. Oxford University Press, 2015)

  • Homonymy and Polysemy
    "A major problem for the lexicographer is provided by the distinction between homonymy and polysemy. We speak of homonymy when two lexemes share the same word-forms . . ..  We speak of polysemy when a single lexeme has two (or more) distinguishable meanings. There is no generally agreed criterion for distinguishing between the two. EAR 'organ of hearing' and EAR 'spike of corn' may be treated as two distinct lexemes . . . and usually are in real dictionaries on the basis of distinct etymologies, although diachronic information should not in principle be used to determine synchronic linguistic structure. On the other hand, many speakers feel that an ear of corn is called that because it resembles the ear on someone's head, and implicitly treat EAR as a single polysemous lexeme. In the writing of any dictionary, a decision has to be taken as to how to distinguish between these two."
    (Laurie Bauer, "Word." Morphology: An International Handbook on Inflection and Word-Formation, ed. by Geert Booij et al. Walter de Gruyter, 2000)

  • A Descriptive Approach to Language
    "Even when they must make choices, lexicographers are attempting to provide a factual record of the language, not a statement about correctness of its usage. However, when people see one form highlighted in a dictionary, they interpret it as the one 'correct' form and subsequently infer that any other form is incorrect. Furthermore, many who read and reference dictionaries take these decisions to be comprehensive and inalterable standards. In other words, even though lexicographers take a descriptive approach to language, their work is often read as prescriptive."
    (Susan Tamasi and Lamont Antieau, Language and Linguistic Diversity in the US: An Introduction. Routledge, 2015)
  • A Proscriptive Approach
    "Modern-day lexicography has produced convincing arguments in favour of a proscriptive approach (cf. Berenholtz 2003). Although it is possible to employ such an approach in printed dictionaries, it is an approach ideal for internet dictionaries. The proscriptive approach allows the lexicographer to present the user with a variety of options, e.g. different orthographic forms of a given word or different pronunciation possibilities. No single form is prescribed but the lexicographer indicates his or her preference by recommending one or more forms. By doing so the alternatives are not demonised but users get a clear indication of the form recommended by the expert."
    (Rufus H. Gouws, "Dictionaries as Innovative Tools in a New Perspective on Standardisation." Lexicography at a Crossroads: Dictionaries and Encyclopedias Today, Lexicographical Tools Tomorrow, ed. by Henning Bergenholtz, Sandro Nielsen, and Sven Tarp. Peter Lang, 2009)
  • Samuel Johnson on Lexicography and Language
    "When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay . . .. The language most likely to continue long without alteration, would be that of a nation raised a little, and but a little, above barbarity, secluded from strangers, and totally employed in procuring the conveniences of life."
    (Samuel Johnson, Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755)