One of the most romantic evenings I’ve ever spent could only be appreciated by another word-geek. While conversing with a certain extremely fascinating fellow on the phone, the subject of the pronunciation of a particular word came up. Hundreds of miles apart, both of us grabbed our trusty dictionaries and looked up the word in question. I don’t remember who was right and who was wrong, or even what the word in dispute was — but I do remember spending the next hour or two on the phone trading bizarre words we’d found by paging through our respective dictionaries. It was when I hung up the phone in a romantic reverie that I remembered the postcard pictured here: at last, I had discovered what ‘Kipling’ actually was!
If the above story strikes you as romantic and you’re ready to call up your significant other and ‘kipple’ with them right now — stop and take a moment first to consider the extremely cool job of Lexicographer.
Lexicographers like today’s contributor, Erin McKean, are the people who make activities like “kipling” and fighting over Scrabble games possible; they create the dictionaries that we writers and word-lovers use every day.
I first heard an interview with Erin on NPR a few years ago and then went out and bought her book Weird and Wonderful Words. She’s been my lexical hero and role model ever since. I was tempted to try to wow you all with my mastery of exotic words in this introduction, but I am simply too thrilled about this entry to even make the attempt.
Whether you’re a prescriptivist or a descriptivist when it comes to linguistics (I suppose Erin will email me privately to let me know if those are “real” words or not), if you love words you can learn more about Erin and lexicography at her website Dictionary Evangelist.
When people ask you “what do you do?” how do you describe your job?
I try not to use the word ‘lexicographer’ unless I think the person has time to hear me explain it. I usually say “I make dictionaries.”
What are the things about your job that you love?
Finding great new words, and fun new uses of old ones; learning something new every day; messing around with computers. Also, people are fascinated by dictionaries (or, at least, they pretend they are when they talk to me).
What are the things about your job that you hate?
Hmmm … there’s not much that I hate! I do dislike having to explain to people that no, I won’t be correcting their grammar when they talk to me. That’s not my job — that was your English teacher’s job. (Or your
What education, training, vocation or just plain luck would someone have to have in order to get a job like yours?
Luck helps a LOT. There are not very many full-time lexicography jobs in the U.S., or even the world.
I’d say that these days a background in computational linguistics would be very helpful, but people have gotten jobs in lexicography with all sorts of degrees. Classics, math, and English are popular options. I have an MA in Linguistics.
What is the funniest story you can think of that involves
your professional training or your job?
Lexicographers have good senses of humor, so there are a lot. I worked on one book that was on a crash schedule, and so some of the more “optional” steps had to be shortened or skipped, including the one where lexicographers try to rearrange page flows to keep offensive words from showing up in the guide words at the top of the page. Guess what string of words (towards the end of the letter F) ended up as guide words? You got it.
P.S. from jimsmuse: and you all thought my hero was going to be Madonna, didn’t you?