Sun, Nov 14, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Joining the elite ranks of dictionary-writers is no mean feat

By Erin McKean  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

I've wanted to be a lexicographer since I was eight. A lexicographer, as those of you who read this space regularly well know, is someone who writes or edits dictionaries. The word "lexicographer" is one you'll find in even the smallest dictionaries -- call it a point of professional privilege.

I read an article in a newspaper about the late Robert Burchfield and the making of the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and after that, you might say, my path was defined.

When I'm asked how I became a lexicographer and give the since-I-was-eight answer, the hopefuls look a little less hopeful. For one thing, everyone who has ever asked me how to become one has been a great deal older than eight, making the questioner feel immediately as if he or she is already starting too late. (One little girl who attended a talk I gave in New Orleans did show an initial interest, but after some consideration decided that she would rather be "a real writer").

Although it's a job that has an impressive name, several professional organizations (the Dictionary Society of North America and Euralex being the largest) and even a best seller associated with it, The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester, there's not a well-marked route to actually becoming a lexicographer. The hopefuls want to be told that there's a certification process, a test to take -- your alphabetization comps, perhaps -- a degree to earn or at least a trade union to join.

Some disadvantages

Sadly, there is no central credentialing body, at least not in the US. (There are a few schools in Europe that offer certificates or MA/MS degrees in lexicography; the programs at the University of Birmingham and the University of Brighton are the best known. There is also the Lexicography Master Class, which offers training courses to companies and individuals and is run by the noted lexicographers Sue Atkins, Michael Rundll and Adam Kilgarriff). There have been classes in lexicography in the US, but no degree-granting programs.

The hopefuls always ask the same questions: Should I major in English or linguistics? Should I get my doctorate? Should I freelance, or should I try for a full-time staff position? My answer, too, is always the same: It depends.

Dictionary making, as a career, has several striking disadvantages. There are fewer than a dozen major employers in the US; they are clustered in the Northeast and tend to hire on a cyclical basis as projects wax and wane. Each dictionary has its own defining style, meaning that there's considerable relearning to do if you change employers. The number of full-time working English-language lexicographers in the US, including freelancers, is probably well below 200; adding those working on scholarly and academic dictionaries might double that number, but not much more.

I polled, in a highly unscientific manner, my colleagues in the Dictionary Society of North America, and I found that lexicographers in the US do have a common qualification for the jobs they hold or have held: They have all been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

How to land a job

Several lexicographers, including Wendalyn Nichols and Enid Pearsons (both formerly of Random House), Orin Hargraves (a freelance lexicographer who has worked for Oxford and other houses) and Debbie Sawczak (formerly of the Canadian Gage dictionaries) answered newspaper ads that in essence said, "Lexicographers Wanted: Will Train." Joanne Despres (senior editor at Merriam-Webster), Ed Gates (who also worked at Merriam on the Third International), Daniel Barron (late of Longman) and Peter Gilliver (of the OED) also responded to job postings, some literally put up on bulletin boards. The late, much-missed Rima McKinzey (a freelance "pronster," also known as a pronunciation editor, or orthoepist) was recommended for a job at Random House by one of her professors, Arthur Bronstein; Steve Kleinedler (senior editor at American Heritage) took a class from Richard Spears (a slang lexicographer) at Northwestern University, which led to freelance work. Robert Parks (of Wordsmyth) taught a Politics and Language class and was called in as a consultant for a company making electronic dictionaries in Japan while there on a Fulbright; Robert Wachal (who has edited a dictionary of abbreviations and acronyms for American Heritage) taught linguistics and was "scouted" by a publisher while giving a paper at a Dictionary Society meeting. Grant Barrett, a journalist, volunteered to be the Web master for the American Dialect Society, which led indirectly to his becoming the project editor for the Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

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