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Who Writes Dictionaries?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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People who compile dictionaries are called lexicographers. While sometimes thought of as a branch of linguistics, the art of lexicography is properly considered a distinct field. Some are written by a single lexicographer, but many of the most respected and widely used examples today are the work of many individuals.

The lexicographer has many considerations to keep in mind when writing a dictionary. First of all, there are many different types of dictionaries with just as many intended uses. They may simply provide definitions, pronunciation, and basic origins — such as "Greek" or "Old French" — or they may provide more extensive derivations and histories of each term. Some, like the Oxford English Dictionary, provide textual examples of terms. These books may focus on specific subsets of a language, such as slang or legal terminology, or they may be used to give translations from one language to another. The first known dictionary, compiled in Latin during the first century BCE by Verrius Flaccus, listed only archaic and difficult terms.

Keeping the intended purpose of the book in mind, the lexicographer must choose which words to include, how much information to provide for each entry, and how to organize the data. Some aspects of organization seem fairly obvious, such as alphabetizing terms in an English dictionary or categorizing Chinese characters by radical and stroke count, a system known as lexicographic order. Alphabetized dictionaries did not appear in English until 1640, however, and earlier ones grouped words according to thematic similarity, such as listing all animals together.

There are also more subtle considerations regarding the organization of terms, such as how accented letters should be dealt with. A lexicographer must consider whether certain inflected terms, such as "children" in English, be listed on their own or included under the uninflected or lemma entry, "child" in this case. In some languages, all words with the same root are grouped together. In English, this would result in words like "important" and "report" appearing under the entry for "port" instead of under I and R respectively.

Some lexicographers have become household names, and revised editions of their work are still in use decades after their dictionaries first appeared. The most well-known of these are perhaps Noah Webster and Pierre Larousse.

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Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By shell4life — On Sep 14, 2012

I can't believe that words were once grouped by category instead of alphabetically! That would make them so much harder to find!

What if you disagreed about which category a word should belong to? You could spend so much time looking for it in one section when it might be way over in the back of the book under a totally different category, just because the lexicographer thought that was where it should go.

You can't argue with alphabetical organization, though. It's the most cut and dry way to arrange words in a dictionary, free of debate.

By feasting — On Sep 14, 2012

How can anyone know enough words to write a dictionary? Surely, they must have reference books and cheat sheets.

If that's the case, though, you have to wonder where the original lexicographers got their information. What did they use for reference?

By OeKc05 — On Sep 13, 2012

@pastanaga – I do the same thing! I love the English language, and I think it's good to increase my vocabulary whenever possible.

It can be difficult to remember new words if you have just read them in the dictionary once, however. So, I make notes of words that I find that I actually think I might use someday. Writing down the definition with my own hand helps me store it in my memory.

By orangey03 — On Sep 12, 2012

@donasmrs – I remember learning a little about Noah Webster in class. I was really impressed by him, because he obviously knew so many words.

When he wrote the dictionary, Webster was around 70 years old. So, he got to put a lifetime of learning and experience into it.

He had to learn several different languages in order to know the origins of all the words. I remember that he changed the spelling of a few words, because he thought they were confusing. He changed “musick” to “music,” so we have him to thank for the current spelling of music.

By ZipLine — On Sep 08, 2012

@anon241367-- That would be the editor. This is the same process for all printed material. It has to be proofread by at least one person and that person is called the editor. There can be multiple editors for one literary work, in fact, that's usually the case these days.

But an editor is not the same as a writer. So you can have multiple writers writing a dictionary and then multiple editors editing it. And this usually only applies to printed material. Electronic dictionaries don't usually mention writers and editors.

Did this make sense? I hope I didn't confuse you even more!

By discographer — On Sep 08, 2012

@anon127337, @irontoenail-- There are actually some online dictionaries that accept entries by regular folks like you and me. They're usually urban dictionaries for informal words and phrases in the English language. Since this is an area that normal people are most knowledgeable about, they can contribute to it.

Of course, someone has to review entries and make sure it's appropriate and well worded. Nevertheless, you are writing it.

By donasmrs — On Sep 07, 2012

So Webster's dictionary was written by Noah Webster? That's cool! I never knew that.

What kind of a background did Noah Webster have? I'm sure he must have studied English but where did he receive his education and how old was he when he wrote Webster's dictionary?

I'm just trying to get an idea of what a lexicographer is like.

By anon241367 — On Jan 18, 2012

Who actually proofreads a dictionary before it is put into print?

By pastanaga — On May 24, 2011

I know it's geeky but I really like flicking through a good dictionary when I'm bored. It's interesting finding new words. That's one reason I'll always have a paper dictionary and not rely on an online dictionary like some people I know. Being able to randomly open the pages and find some new word I've never seen before is worth paying for.

By irontoenail — On May 23, 2011

@anon127337 I think if you had a special kind of dictionary in mind, like a Klingon dictionary, or a slang dictionary for a particular area, that only you could write, and that there was a market for, you would have a chance to write one.

In that case, you would write out a proposal to a non-fiction publisher like you would with any other non-fiction book. Then they would either accept it or not.

For ordinary dictionaries, they take so much research I think they are mostly run by particular companies, like Oxford. You might be able to work for the company, and so work on the dictionary, but for the most part I can't see a publishing company wanting to publish a new language dictionary when there are already so many established and respected names in the field.

By anon127337 — On Nov 15, 2010

I was wondering if any person can write a dictionary or should be a professional related to linguistics? Also, dictionaries are published like any other book or do they go into a determined process? Thanks.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide...
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