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What is Lexicography?

By Devon Pryor
Updated May 23, 2024
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Perhaps the simplest explanation of lexicography is that it is a scholarly discipline that involves compiling, writing, or editing dictionaries. Lexicography is widely considered an independent scholarly discipline, though it is a subfield within linguistics.

Many consider lexicography to be divided into two related areas. The act of writing, or editing dictionaries is known as Practical Lexicography. The analysis or description of the vocabulary of a particular language, and the meaning that links certain words to others in a dictionary, is known as Theoretical Lexicography. Theoretical Lexicography is particularly concerned with developing theories regarding the structural and semantic relationships among words in the dictionary. Since it involves theoretical analysis of the lexicon, Theoretical Lexicography is also known as Metalexicography.

In order to better understand lexicography, it may help to know what a lexicon is. Lexicon is a term used in linguistics to indicate the archive of lexemes. Lexemes are abstract, minimal units in a language that link related forms of a word together. For example, the words fly, flight, flew, flying, and so on, are all morphologic variations of the lexeme fly. Fly is the lexeme because it is the base from which these word variations arise.

Lexemes, then, make up a lexicon which is the collection of word meanings in a given language. In a dictionary, the lexemes, sometimes loosely referred to as word stems, are provided first and followed by variations of the base word. As we can see when we read a dictionary, the lexicon also deals with the area of linguistics known as semantics. Semantics refers to the aspects of meaning that are expressed in a language, and of course, in the vocabulary items of which a language is comprised.

In addition to providing data on the morphology and semantics of a lexeme, the dictionary also provides structural information regarding the root of the word, and historical information regarding the evolution of the word into its modern-day form. This is known as etymology.

A lexicographer is concerned with what words are, what they mean, how the vocabulary of a language is structured, how speakers of the language use and understand the words, how the words evolved, and what relationships exist between words. This is the information a lexicographer compiles when creating a dictionary.

So, a lexicographer is a linguist whose specific expertise is in writing dictionaries. Lexicography, with all its interrelated concepts, and its links to other areas of linguistics, is the specific area of scholarly work devoted to these concepts.

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Discussion Comments
By anon239644 — On Jan 10, 2012

Lexicography is concerned with many other fields, such as genre analysis.

By vogueknit17 — On Jan 30, 2011

While it might seem a little surprising, lexicography, both grammatical and just informational, seems to be on the rise in the employment field. There are so many different forms of information on language and other topics which require dictionary typed references. I imagine even someone with only an introduction to lexicography could find a way into the field, perhaps even as a full time career.

By accordion — On Jan 28, 2011

In addition to the more formal, professional lexicons out there, such as dictionaries, many people have used lexicography for compiling the data about something they love. For example, a group of devoted fans of the Harry Potter series began The Harry Potter Lexicon several years ago, and it is one of the largest sources on the internet for details about the books, their inspirations, the actors in the films, the differences between the films and books, and many other things.

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