If you have a fascination for words and how their meanings develop and change over time, then a career as a lexicographer may be for you

As a lexicographer, you'll write, compile and edit dictionaries for both print and online publication.

The work involves searching specialist databases comprising thousands of pieces of language from a range of sources, including literature, newspapers, online journals, blogs, discussion groups and transcripts of television and radio (known as the 'corpus'), for evidence of meanings and usages of a word or phrase. You'll use this evidence and your own judgement and experience to reassess existing entries and identify and consider possible new entries.

As nearly all dictionaries are now online and encompass a broad range of related resources, the role is evolving to meet these changes. You may also be involved in creating and sourcing this add-on material and marketing the whole package online, particularly through social media. In these roles, you're likely to be called a dictionary editor.

Types of lexicographer

You'll typically work on one of the following types of dictionary:

  • English for native speakers
  • English for learners of English
  • technical/specialist, e.g. law, medicine
  • bilingual, for native speakers or learners of English.

Responsibilities

As a lexicographer you'll typically need to:

  • research and identify new words that are in common usage for inclusion in the dictionary
  • create new entries using accurate and succinct definitions
  • accurately represent the various meanings of new and existing words
  • assess which meaning of a word is the primary (most used) meaning and which meanings are secondary or less commonly used
  • review and edit existing definitions
  • check and proofread entries
  • make sure that the style and format of words is in strict accordance with previously agreed protocols
  • translate words and expressions in both directions (as a bilingual lexicographer).

If working as a dictionary editor on an online dictionary resource, you'll also need to:

  • organise dictionary updates, coordinating the work of freelancers
  • create or source add-on materials, such as blogs, slideshows, videos, quizzes, word games and thesauruses
  • market the dictionary and its associated resources via social media
  • get involved with web design and SEO (search-engine optimisation) to ensure that web traffic grows
  • come up with ways to increase user engagement with the resource.

At senior level, you'll typically have responsibility for a team of staff and will decide upon future projects, agreeing on a framework, methodology and style of presentation, and ensure that it comes in on time and to budget

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.
  • The majority of lexicographers work on a freelance basis and rates of pay will depend on your experience and skills.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You'll typically work 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, although you may need to work some extra hours to meet project deadlines.

What to expect

  • Entry into the profession is competitive as there are only a few publishers who produce dictionaries.
  • Most lexicographers begin their careers as freelance contributors to dictionaries.
  • It may be possible to begin your career as an assistant editor or editorial assistant and move into the role of lexicographer as you gain publishing experience.
  • As the profession is small, there are limited opportunities to take up senior positions.

Qualifications

A degree in English language is particularly useful for a lexicography career. Other relevant degree subjects include:

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

A degree in a foreign language is essential for working as a bilingual lexicographer and further experience, such as teaching or translation work, will improve your chances of employment.

It may also be useful, although not essential, to have a Masters degree in language, linguistics or translation.

For learners' dictionaries, you'll need an English language teaching (ELT) qualification and teaching experience.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • an excellent command of English and, for bilingual lexicographers, relevant foreign language expertise
  • 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 with other editors
  • effective time management and organisational skills with the ability to coordinate the work of others
  • the ability to work rapidly and logically with complex information
  • confidence in using a range of specialist software, such as corpus-querying software, dictionary-writing software and WordPress
  • an understanding of SEO and how websites can increase their traffic and engage with users.

Work experience

Competition for entry is strong and networking is important for finding out about opportunities. Try getting some work experience with a publishing company and check with your university to see if they have links with publishing companies offering internships.

Experience in a related area such as editing or proofreading is also valuable. This experience will give you an insight into the publishing sector, as well as helping you build up your knowledge, skills and contacts. Many large, and some smaller, publishing houses offer work experience placements, which usually last around two weeks.

If you aren't able to find a work placement, try and do some work shadowing with a publisher to get a feel for the role and to make contacts in the profession.

Other useful activities include:

  • writing for or editing your university newspaper
  • creating and writing your own blog
  • developing an online social media presence, through Twitter and LinkedIn for example, to promote yourself and your skills.

Employers

The only UK publisher that still employs full-time in-house lexicographers is the Oxford University Press and this is largely for the update of the Oxford English Dictionary.

There are a small number of in-house dictionary editor jobs at most of the dictionary publishers, such as:

  • Cambridge University Press
  • Collins
  • Macmillan
  • Merriam-Webster (US dictionary)
  • Pearson/Longman.

The majority of lexicographers work on a freelance basis for publishing companies producing dictionaries and related resources.

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

Almost all training takes place on the job. For example, you'll receive training on your employer's specialist software packages and databases, as well as on their house style, methods and procedures.

You'll be responsible for identifying your own professional development needs. This may include taking short courses in areas such as editing, proofreading, SEO, social media and lexicography. Relevant course providers include:

Academic research at PhD level in lexicography and related areas such as lexicology, lexical semantics and the history of the English dictionary is possible at some universities. Bilingual lexicographers may undertake a Masters degree or further research in language, linguistics or translation.

Membership of the European Association for Lexicography (EURALEX) is useful for keeping up to date with developments in lexicography and networking with colleagues.

Career prospects

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 your ability, and with some experience, it's 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 involve different responsibilities. As a lexicographer, you'll 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 and coordinating a team of freelancers.

As a dictionary editor, you'll maintain the dictionary, organising the work of a team of freelancers, and work on creating and sourcing extra online resources, marketing and promoting the whole online resource.

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.

Some lexicographers move into research or follow an academic career. It's also possible to move into related areas such as reference publishing, corpus linguistics and computational linguistics or into the wider publishing industry.