Lexicographers write, compile and edit dictionaries for both print and online publication. They may work on one of the following types of dictionary:

  • English for native speakers;
  • English for learners of English;
  • technical, e.g. law;
  • bilingual, for native speakers or learners of English.

English language lexicographers monitor and record uses of language and use databases to interrogate a wide range of evidence.

They consider both the meaning and usages of words and compile definitions in a structured manner.

Lexicographers writing definitions for English learner dictionaries take into consideration the difficulties people have with learning English. Bilingual lexicographers translate words and expressions, rather than defining them.

Lexicographers edit, proofread and check the accuracy of their own and others' text, and perform editorial tasks. They reassess existing entries and use evidence and judgement to identify and consider possible new entries.

Responsibilities

The main tasks carried out by all lexicographers include:

  • checking and proofreading text;
  • compiling new and reviewing existing definitions in strict accordance with previously agreed protocols;
  • writing advertising copy about specific titles for use in catalogues and brochures;
  • identifying new words that are in common usage for inclusion in the dictionary.

Additional activities of English language lexicographers include:

  • using specialist databases comprising thousands of pieces of language from a wide range of sources, including literature, newspapers and transcripts of television and radio. This body of language is known as the 'corpus';
  • checking the corpus for evidence of meanings and usages of a word or phrase;
  • using judgement to assess which meaning of a word is the primary (most used) meaning, which meanings are secondary or less commonly used, and in which order the meanings should be ranked;
  • monitoring and recording changes in the use of words and phrases that have been noticed in the course of day-to-day life.

Bilingual lexicographers work on:

  • translating words and expressions in both directions, e.g. from English to French and from French to English;
  • discussing and resolving problematic translations with native-speaking editors;
  • writing grammatical and/or cultural supplements included in some editions of translation dictionaries;
  • constructing 'help pages' to include pictures and labels, e.g. listing the parts of a computer;
  • conducting market research with book retailers, students and teachers.

Daily activities of project managers typically include:

  • considering and deciding upon future projects;
  • discussing and agreeing upon a framework, methodology and style of presentation for a new project;
  • overseeing financial resources to make sure that a project is completed to a tight budget;
  • managing the time and activities of the team working on a project to make sure deadlines are met;
  • liaising with marketing staff to produce a marketing strategy for the publication.

Salary

  • Typical starting salaries for assistant editors are in the region of £18,000 to £22,000. Editors may start on salaries of £20,000 to £30,000.
  • With experience, senior editors may earn £23,000 to £35,000, while project managers can reach salaries of up to £45,000.

Many lexicographers work on a freelance basis, charging varying amounts per project.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Hours are generally 9am to 5pm, especially for junior positions. However, people in more senior posts will work overtime as necessary to get a job done by its deadline. The work is almost exclusively office-based.

It is possible to work part time, particularly if freelance, although it may be difficult in an in-house project management position.

What to expect

  • As the profession is small, opportunities to take up senior positions are limited.
  • Lexicography, in common with other areas of publishing, is not a highly-paid profession and many lexicographers do the work principally for the love of it.
  • The number of companies publishing dictionaries within the UK is small, so in-house posts are restricted to the cities where these publishers are located, e.g. Oxford and Cambridge.
  • Travel is not a common feature of the role, though if you work on bilingual dictionaries you may attend conferences and promote the dictionary overseas.
  • Some familiarity with older forms of English is useful for working on a historical dictionary.
  • As with most jobs in publishing, there are many more applicants than places, and the number of vacancies are limited by the fact that there are only a few publishers who produce dictionaries.
  • Networking is a very common method of job seeking. It may be possible to undertake a period of work shadowing with a publisher to get a feel for the role and to make contacts within the profession.
  • Alternatively, you may be able to gain work in a related role, e.g. editorial assistant, and then move in to this role as you gain publishing experience.
  • Candidates who show aptitude for the work and a good attitude might be offered further opportunities as they arise.

Qualifications

Graduates from all subjects can enter lexicography work but the following subjects may be particularly helpful:

  • English;
  • modern languages;
  • linguistics;
  • history/politics;
  • classics.

A degree in foreign or classical languages or linguistics may increase your chances of employment as a bilingual lexicographer.

Entry without a degree or with a HND only is unlikely.

Postgraduate study is not essential, although it is possible to undertake a research degree in lexicography, (MPhil or PhD), through the University of Birmingham's Dictionary Research Centre.

A Masters degree in language, linguistics or translation may be helpful for aspiring bilingual lexicographers. Teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) qualifications and experience is very likely to be a requirement for English teaching titles.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • an excellent command of English, and for bilingual lexicographers, a strong working knowledge of the relevant foreign language, along with an awareness of, and sensitivity to, the problems of translation;
  • a practical understanding of the mechanics of grammar and the ability to use grammar correctly and identify instances of incorrect usage;
  • the ability to describe a complex thing in a few words, and for English language lexicographers, the ability to recognise subtle differences between meanings, an appreciation of how English is used in other English-speaking countries and an appreciation of the difficulties of learning English;
  • an excellent eye for detail, both for spotting errors and for identifying inconsistencies of presentation style;
  • flair and imagination - lexicography is not merely a mechanical process and you must be able to strike the right balance between explanation and concision;
  • the ability to learn and work within the publisher's house style;
  • teamworking and communication skills - although you need to be able to concentrate and work well on your own, lexicography is an essentially collaborative process, and you exchange ideas and discuss problems continually with other editors, both formally and informally;
  • effective time management and organisational skills;
  • the ability to work rapidly and logically with complex information, concentrating for long periods while maintaining accuracy;
  • an aptitude for using and learning IT, in particular the ability to learn how to use specialist database software for research purposes, and creativity in developing search strings;
  • an awareness of emerging new technologies and how they can support the dictionary, e.g. online dictionaries, CD-ROMs, ebooks, etc.

Work experience

Experience of proofreading or checking text is likely to be useful. This can be demonstrated through previous involvement in writing for or editing a university newspaper or work experience in publishing.

Employers

There are very few publishers of dictionaries in the UK, and the majority of these no longer employ their own in-house teams of lexicographers.

The exceptions are:

  • Oxford University Press (OUP) - produces the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), plus a range of English language, bilingual and multilingual, children's and English learner dictionaries. OUP is the largest employer of all types of lexicographers in the UK. Academic positions in specialisms such as etymology tend to be limited to the OED.
  • Cambridge University Press - specialises in English language teaching dictionaries and has a small team of lexicographers on staff. Candidates are likely to need experience of teaching English as a foreign language.

Technology has made it possible for people to do the job effectively from home and the majority of lexicographers are now freelance.

Look for job vacancies at:

Very few publishing companies employ their own in-house teams of lexicographers and instead recruit freelancers on a contract basis.

If you are looking for an entry-level position, it is a good idea to send speculative applications to individual publishing companies giving details of any previous publishing experience you have.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Almost all training is on the job. You will be trained on the various specialist software packages and databases that are used for the job, as you won't be expected to have prior knowledge of them.

Training is also provided in the methods and procedures used in the work and the publisher's particular house style.

Occasionally, the chance may arise to attend short courses in relevant areas like lexicography or proofreading.

Training opportunities are offered by organisations such as:

It is often the responsibility of the individual to raise training or professional development needs with their manager. Deadlines and budgets are often tight, so there may be limited scope for training.

Some lexicographers choose to undertake a research degree in lexicography (MPhil or PhD) through the University of Birmingham's Dictionary Research Centre.

Masters courses in related subjects that include a lexicography module may also be of interest. Bilingual lexicographers may undertake a Masters degree or further research in language, linguistics or translation.

Sometimes the opportunity may arise to attend a conference with other lexicographers from around Europe, for example those organised by the European Association for Lexicography (EURALEX).

Career prospects

Lexicography is often only part of an overall role and job titles reflect this, with a title of 'editor' being more usual than 'lexicographer'.

The typical entry-level post is as assistant editor or the slightly more junior position of editorial assistant.

Most of the workload involves routinely working on dictionary entries. Depending upon ability, and with some experience, it is sometimes possible to take on responsibility for small projects.

As you gain experience, you may take on the role of editor or lexicographer. These titles are sometimes used interchangeably but may involve slightly different responsibilities.

At this level, you will still spend a large proportion of your time working on dictionary entries, but will also have more input into how the title is put together, perhaps with responsibility for organising a project, coordinating a team of freelancers, and liaising with marketing and printing staff to put the book together and sell it.

This work is similar to, but more specialised than, roles in the wider publishing industry.

A few people may move up into a position as a senior editor or managing editor. These roles are limited in number and they tend to be taken by people with commercial awareness and drive. Much of the work at this level involves considering and deciding on the methodology for possible future projects.

It is common, after an in-house post, to take on some freelance work, perhaps working part time and combining this with other commitments. Freelance work enables you to work from a different location.

It is rare for people to change employers once they become experienced. Generally, people progress by remaining with the same publisher or else move into freelance work, and new staff are recruited into entry-level positions.

It is possible to develop a career by moving out of the narrow field of lexicography into the wider publishing industry, perhaps working on other types of reference books.

Some lexicographers may move into creating and delivering training in the field.