Definition and Examples of Lexicography


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Lexicography is the process of writing, editing, and/or compiling a dictionary. An author or editor of a dictionary is called a lexicographer. The processes involved in the compilation and implementation of digital dictionaries (such as Merriam-Webster Online) is known as e-lexicography.

"The fundamental difference between lexicography and linguistics," says Sven Tarp, "is that they have two completely different subject fields: The subject field of linguistics is language, whereas the subject field of lexicography is dictionaries and lexicographic works in general" ("Beyond Lexicography" in Lexicography at a Crossroads, 2009).
In 1971, historical linguist and lexicographer Ladislav Zgusta published the first major international handbook on lexicography, Manual of Lexicography, which remains the standard text in the field.

Etymology: From the Greek, "word" + "write"

Pronunciation: LEK-si-KOG-ra-fee

Beginnings of English Lexicography

  • "The beginnings of English lexicography go back to the Old English period . . .. The language of the Roman Church was Latin; its priests and monks needed to be competent in Latin in order to conduct services and to read the Bible . . .. As English monks studied these Latin manuscripts, they would sometimes write the English translation above (or below) a Latin word in the text, to help their own learning, and as a guide to subsequent readers. These one-word translations, written between the lines of a manuscript, are called 'interlinear glosses'; they are seen as the beginnings of (bilingual) lexicography." (Howard Jackson, Lexicography: An Introduction. Routledge, 2002)

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) and English Lexicography

  • "I am not yet so lost in lexicography, as to forget that words are the daughters of earth and that things are the sons of heaven."
    (Samuel Johnson)
  • "[Samuel] Johnson was not only innovative in his use of 114,000 citations to prove his definitions and the usage of words and connotations. He also noted the author who had first used a word or collocation and who had last used an obsolete word. He also took the liberty of adding prescriptive commentaries whenever there was doubt about usage."
    (Piet Van van Sterkenburg, A Practical Guide to Lexicography. John Benjamins, 2003)

English Lexicography in the 20th Century

  • "In the English language area, the lexical orientation has long remained historical. The first edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, by H.W. and F.G. Fowler, dates from 1911 and leans heavily on [James] Murray's New English Dictionary on Historical Principles [later renamed the Oxford English Dictionary]. It was also due to the fact that the first supplement to the OED was published in 1933 and the second was in preparation from 1950 onwards, to be published in four thick volumes under the general editorship of Robert Burchfield. Incidentally, that supplement did include swear words, sexual terms, colloquial speech etc.
  • "Innovations in the English lexicography were to be seen in the dictionaries by Longman and Collins, based on contemporary corpora of electronic texts and anchored entirely in a database structure. . . .
  • "In 1988, the first edition of the OED was made available on CD-ROM and the second edition in 1992."
    (Piet van Sterkenburg, "'The' Dictionary: Definition and History." A Practical Guide to Lexicography, edited by Piet Van Sterkenburg. John Benjamins, 2003)

Crowdsourcing and Contemporary Lexicography

  • "Websites such as those for Urban Dictionary and Wiktionary . . . offer what is known as 'bottom-up lexicography,' placing ordinary speakers and writers at the core of the ways in which the dictionaries in question are to be made. The definition of dictionary-making which such sites present can be particularly telling. Lexicography: 'The art of making a dictionary. Anyone who adds to [sic] is a lexicographer,' a post on Urban Dictionary proclaims." (Lynda Mugglestone, Dictionaries: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2011)
  • "A small thing in the larger world perhaps but Collins, the dictionary publisher, may have set a revolution going. If so it's because they just announced the first instance of a dictionary allowing input not only from the usual suspects--staff lexicographers--but from the public, or to use the pertinent language: the crowd.
  • "Crowdsourcing . . . is first recorded in 2004. The philosophy of the more the merrier. And more creative. Now that task could include lexicography. . . .
    "For the last couple of months, Collins has thrown open their files to all-comers. Suggest a word that qualifies for their dictionary and wins a prize! Examples include Twittersphere, sexting, cyberstalking and captcha. . . .
  • "Such shout-outs are the antithesis of traditional lexicography. . . . If the dictionary-maker is a humble archivist while the lexicon is being created, they become a deity--or at least a cut-rate Moses--once it appears and becomes a source of supposedly trustworthy information. . . .
  • "Letting in the street will end no worlds but will it improve the quality of dictionaries? Form as ever faces off content. The form can be democratic as all hell, but in lexicon-land, surely the content is what matters. . . .
  • "Reference should be online. The opportunities for presentation, for breadth of information and for sophisticated searches that would be impossible in a print dictionary are too good to miss. But if reference is to remain useful then it cannot become amateur hour." (Jonathon Green, "Dictionaries Are Not Democratic." The Observer, September 13, 2012)

The Lighter Side of Lexicography

  • "LEXICOGRAPHER, n. A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods." (Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, 1911)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Lexicography." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of Lexicography. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Lexicography." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).