11 Secrets of Lexicographers

Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images
Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images

Merriam-Webster defines a lexicographer as “an author or editor of a dictionary.” The job sounds simple enough, but the work that goes into researching and writing definitions like the one above takes a unique combination of skills. Lexicographers have to be passionate about words without being pretentious, knowledgeable without being overeducated, and analytic enough to treat language like a science while being creative enough to define tricky words like art and love.

To learn more about what goes into being a lexicographer, Mental Floss spoke with a few from the world’s top dictionaries. Here’s what they had to say about where they find new words, what goes into the editing process, and how they really feel about defining literally as “figuratively.”

1. Being a lexicographer doesn't require a specific degree.

There are a number of different paths you can take to get into lexicography. Most people who write and edit dictionaries come from some sort of humanities background, but there’s usually no specific degree or training required to become a lexicographer. Emily Brewster, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster since 2000, double-majored in linguistics and philosophy. She tells Mental Floss, “A lot of people have an English background. There are some editors who have linguistic backgrounds. But really, when your job is defining the vocabulary of the English language, expertise in any field can apply. We have science editors, we have people who are specialists in chemistry, specialists in law, so any kind of expertise can make you a better definer.”

According to Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer who worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and Random House Dictionaries, an education with a focus on lexicography specifically can actually be a turn-off for employers. “There was a university that once offered a degree in lexicography, but no dictionary house would ever hire someone with a degree in lexicography [...] In general, the people who are going to be teaching it that way are probably not experienced practical lexicographers, and the kind of things you need to do the job are rather different than what academics would study if you were studying lexicography.” Students studying lexicography at Université de Lorraine in France, for example, learn about etymology, polysemy (the existence of multiple meanings for one word), and lexicological analysis. A class can provide helpful background on the subject, but it won't necessarily equip learners with the skills and instincts they need to find and define new words.

Too much education, regardless of the subject, can also hurt someone’s chances of working for a dictionary. “In general you want someone with some but not too much training in some kind of general humanities discipline," Sheidlower says. "Not someone with a Ph.D., because people with Ph.D.s tend to think you can spend the rest of your life studying things, and when you’re actually working for a dictionary you have a list of 50 things you have to get done by the end of the week. The fact that one of them or all of them might be super interesting doesn’t mean you can spend three weeks studying the same thing.”

2. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are "proper."

The role of dictionaries is largely misunderstood by the public. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are valid and dictate how they should be used. Rather, they find the words that already exist and do their best to represent how they’re being used in the real world. “This is something non-lexicographers in particular have problems with,” Sheidlower says. “But the role of a dictionary is not to say what is correct in any sort of sense handed down from above. It is to say what is in use in language, and if people are using something different from how it’s used traditionally, that thing is going to go in regardless of whether or not you like it.”

3. Lexicographers know their decisions can create controversy—and not always for the reasons you’d think.

Even if lexicographers don’t think of themselves as linguistic gatekeepers, many people see still them that way. That can cause controversy when a word or definition makes it into the dictionary that people don’t approve of. One recent example is the inclusion of the word they in Merriam-Webster as a non-binary pronoun. “That’s been getting a tremendous amount of attention,” Sheidlower says. But as he explains, the dictionary didn’t make up the usage—it simply acknowledged its existence. “Singular they goes back to the 14th century—even nonbinary they goes back to the 18th century. ... New isn’t necessarily bad, but those things aren’t new.”

Words that fall outside sensitive social and political arenas can also stir outrage. A classic example is defining literally to mean "figuratively." “People hate that, they hate it so much,” Brewster says. “But it’s old, it’s established, and if we didn’t enter it, we’d be saying the word is not used this way, and the word is used this way and it’s been used this way since Charles Dickens. It’s not really our place to make a judgement if a word or a use is a good word. Our job is to report words that are established in the language.”

4. Lexicographers add hundreds of new words to the dictionary each year ...

Language is constantly evolving, which means that a lexicographer’s job never ends. Brewster estimates that roughly 1000 words are added to Merriam-Webster.com each year, including new senses of existing words. The most recent batch consisted of 533 new terms and uses, ranging from highly specific words like non-rhotic (the Bostonian habit of not pronouncing the letter r unless it’s followed by a vowel) to Instagram-friendly slang like vacay.

5. ... But lexicographers also have to be choosy.

More new words enter the lexicon each year than can fit between the covers of even the most comprehensive dictionary. To give readers an up-to-date picture of the English language without overworking themselves, lexicographers have to be selective about which words make the cut. As Brewster explains, every word that goes into the Merriam-Webster dictionary meets certain criteria. “We have to have significant evidence of a word in use over an extended period of time,” she says.

Those standards are a little vague for a reason. Taking the popularity and staying power of a new word into consideration, editors get to decide what counts as “significant evidence” and an “extended period of time” for themselves.

Brewster elaborates, “For example, the verb tweet as in the Twitter sense erupted very suddenly in the language. So that was a case in which very quickly it became clear that our readers were going to be served by having this term be defined. You can contrast that with a term like adorkable, it requires a longer amount of time before it meets that criteria of being in the language for an extended period of time because we don’t want to enter words that nobody’s going to be using in five years.”

6. Lexicographers struggle with words like love.

Lexicography is methodical and scientific work most of the time, but it can get subjective. If you’ve ever had trouble defining a term without using a related word, chances are whoever wrote its entry in the dictionary encountered the same problem. “A term like art or poetry or love, these are notoriously hard to define because their meanings are extremely broad. You can’t pin it down,” Sheidlower says. “The word itch is very hard to define. Trying to define the word itch without using the word scratch is very difficult. I’ll let you think about that one for a moment.” (In case you were wondering, Merriam-Webster defines itch as “an uneasy irritating sensation in the upper surface of the skin usually held to result from mild stimulation of pain receptors.” Pretty spot-on.)

7. Lexicographers rarely argue over words.

If you’re looking to have spirited debates over the value of certain words with your fellow language enthusiasts, lexicography may not be the career for you. Most of the work is done in silence in front of a computer, and conflicts that get more passionate than a politely worded email are rare. “People think we sit around a table and argue about the merits of a word. Or say, ‘Yeah, this word should get in!’ Or ‘Yeah, this word should never get in,’” Brewster says. ”It’s actually very quiet, solitary work. You can make a case for a word, but it’s all in writing. So when I draft a definition for a word, I will say that we have evidence of it dating back as far back as this date, and it’s appeared in all these different types of publications. We’re not very emotional about these things. I think we’re much more biologists than pundits.”

8. Several lexicographers look at each entry.

Putting together a dictionary is collaborative work. According to Brewster, a single word entry must go through several editors before it’s ready for publication. As a definer—what most people think of when they think of a lexicographer—she sets the process in motion. “Being a general definer, my job is to define all the non-technical vocabulary in the language. But that varies really broadly, from economics terms, like a definition for dark money, to pronouns, to prepositions, and also informal terms, like say twerking.”

After she drafts a definition, it also goes through the cross-reference editor (the person who makes sure any other relevant entries are addressed), the pronunciation editor, the etymologist (who traces the word's historical origins), the person who keys it into the system, the copy editor, and the proofreader.

9. Lexicographers promise they aren’t judging the way you speak.

You may assume that someone who makes a living defining words is a stickler for language rules. But lexicographers might understand better than anyone that there’s no one right way to speak English, and the “correct” version of any language is determined by its speakers. “Sometimes when people learn that I work on a dictionary, they worry that I am judging how they write or speak, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Erin McKean, the lexicographer in charge of the online dictionary Wordnik, tells Mental Floss. “I love English, and I love all the different ways to speak and write English. I'm much more likely to ask you to make up a word for me than I am to criticize the words you use!” So if you find yourself in a conversation with a dictionary editor, feel free to use slang and mix up farther and further—you’re in a safe space.

10. Don't ask lexicographers to pick a favorite word.

Lexicographers know more words than the average person, but if you ask them to pick a favorite, they may decline to answer. "You’re not allowed to play favorites," Sheidlower says. "You have to put in words that you dislike, you can’t spend more time researching words that you do like. It’s not personal [...] Just like if you’re a parent, you’re not allowed to say that one child is your favorite, which is generally the metaphor lexicographers will use when they’re asked that question."

11. The internet makes a lexicographer’s job easier.

For most of the job’s history, lexicographers found new words by reading as many books as possible. Reading is still an important part of their work, but thanks to the internet, they have a greater variety of materials to pull from than ever. Emily Brewster mentions Google Books and online corpora—collections of text excerpts from different places, sometimes related to a particular subject—as some of her favorite sources for researching new words and their definitions and origins. But her most reliable resource is a popular social media site. “I really like Twitter in general,” Brewster says. “From Twitter, I get to a huge variety of sources. It’s a really good network for connecting with all kinds of publications.”

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Meet Ice Cream Scientist Dr. Maya Warren

Maya Warren
Maya Warren

Most people don’t think about the chemistry in their cone when enjoying a scoop of ice cream, but as a professional ice cream scientist, Dr. Maya Warren can’t stop thinking about it. A lot of complex science goes into every pint of ice cream, and it’s her job to share that knowledge with the people who make it—and to use that information to develop some innovative flavors of her own.

Unlike many people’s idea of a typical scientist, Warren isn’t stuck in a lab all day. Her role as senior director for international research and development for Cold Stone Creamery takes her to countries around the world. And after winning the 25th season of The Amazing Race in 2014, she’s now back in front of the camera to host Ice Cream Sundays with Dr. Maya on Instagram. In honor of National Ice Cream Month this July, we spoke with Dr. Warren about her sweet job.

How did you get involved in food science?

I fell in love with science at a really young age. I got Gak as a kid, you know the Nickelodeon stuff? And I remember wanting to make my own Gak. I remember getting a little kit and putting together the glue and all the coloring and whatever else I needed to make it. I also had make-your-own gummy candy sets. So I was always into making things myself.

I didn't really connect that to chemistry until later on in life. When I was in high school, I fell in love with chemistry. I decided at that point I should go to college to become a high school chemistry teacher. One day I was over at my best friend's house in college, and she had the TV on in her apartment. I remember watching the Food Network and there was a show on called Unwrapped, and they go in and show you how food is made on a manufacturing, production scale. In that particular episode, they went into a flavor chemistry lab. It was basically a wall full of vials with clear liquid inside them. They were about to flavor soda to make it taste like different parts of a traditional Thanksgiving meal. So you had green bean casserole-flavored soda, you had turkey and gravy-flavored soda, cranberry sauce soda. And I was like, "Oh my gosh, like how disgusting is this? But how cool is this! I could do this. I'm a chemist."

I love the science of food and how intriguing it is, and I had to ask myself, "Maya, what do you love?" And I was like, "I love ice cream! I’m going to become one of the world’s experts in frozen aerated deserts." I found a professor at UW Madison [where I earned my Ph.D. in food science], Dr. Richard Hartel, and he took me under his wing. Six and half years later, I’ve become an expert in ice cream and all its close cousins.

How did you arrive at your current position?

I didn't actually apply for the job. Six years ago, I was running The Amazing Race, the television show on CBS. After I was on it, a lot of publications reached out wanting to interview me. I did a couple of interviews and someone from Cold Stone found my interview. They noticed that I’m a scientist, and they were looking for someone with my background, so they reached out to me. I was actually writing my dissertation, and I was like, "I'm not looking for a job right now. I just want to go home and sleep."

I originally told myself I wasn't going to work for a year because I was so exhausted after graduate school and I needed some time off. But I ended up going to their office in Scottsdale for an interview. At that time, I still wasn't sure if was going to do it or not because I didn't want to move to Arizona. It's just so incredibly hot. I ended up being able to work something out with them where I didn't have to move Arizona. I came on board back in 2016. I started as a consultant at first because I didn't want to move. But then I proved I could make this work from afar.

What does your job at Cold Stone Creamery entail?

I'm the senior director for international research and development for Cold Stone Creamery. A lot of what I do is establishing dairies and building ice cream mixes for countries all across the globe. Dairy is a very expensive commodity. Milk fat is quite pricey. Cold Stone has locations all over the world, and they all need ice cream mixes. But sometimes bringing that ice cream from the United States into that country is extremely expensive, because of conflicts, because of taxes, different importation laws. A lot of what I do is helping those countries figure out how they can build their own dairies, or how can they work with local dairies to make ice cream mixes more affordable.

The other part of what I do is create new ice cream flavors for these places. I look at a local ingredient and say, "I see people in this country eating a lot of blank. Why don’t we turn that into ice cream? How would people feel about that?" I try to get these places to realize that ice cream is so much more than a scoop. In the States, we have ice cream bars, ice cream floats, ice cream sandwiches. But many countries don’t see ice cream like that. So getting these places to come on board with different ideas and platforms to grow their business is a big part of my job.

Maya Warren

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor you made on the job?

I made a product called honey cornbread and blackberry jam ice cream. Ice cream to me is a blank canvas. You can throw all kinds of paint at it—blue and red and yellow and orange and metallic and glitter and whatever else you want—and it becomes this masterpiece. That's how I look at ice cream.

Ice cream starts out with a white base that's full of milk fat and sugar and nonfat dry milk. It’s plain, it’s simple. For this flavor, I thought, "Why don’t I throw cornbread in ice cream mix?" I put in some honey, because that’s a good sweetener, and a little sea salt, because salt elevates taste, especially in sweeter desserts. And why don’t I use blackberry jam? When you’re eating it, you feel the gritty texture of cornbread, which is quite interesting. You get that pop of the berry flavor. There’s a complexity to the flavors, which is what I enjoy about what you can do with ice cream.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

One of the most rewarding things is being able to produce a product and see people eat it. The other part of it is being able to have a hand in helping people in different countries get on their feet. Ice cream isn’t a luxury for many people in America, but there are people in other countries that would look at it that way. Being able to introduce ice cream to these countries is fascinating to me. And being able to provide job opportunities for people, that sincerely touches my heart.

The last part is the fact that when I tell people I’m an ice cream scientist, it doesn’t matter how old the person is, they can’t believe it. I’m like, "I know, could you imagine doing what you love every day?" And that’s what I do. I love ice cream.

What are some misconceptions about being an ice cream scientist?

When I tell people what I do, they automatically think I just put flavors in ice cream. They don’t know that there’s a whole other part of it before you get to adding flavor. They don't think about the balancing of a mix, the chemistry that goes into ice cream, the microbiology part that goes into ice cream, the flavor science that goes into ice cream. There’s so much hardcore science that goes into being an ice cream scientist. Ice cream, believe it or not, is one of the most complex foods known to man (and woman). It is a solid, it’s a gas, and it’s also a liquid all in one. So the solid phase comes in via the ice crystals and partially coalesced fat globules. The gas phase comes in via the air cells. Ice cream usually ranges from 27 to 30 percent overrun, which is the measurement of aeration in ice cream. You also have your liquid phase. There’s a semi-liquid to component to ice cream that we don’t see, but there’s a little bit of liquid in there.

People don’t think about ice crystals and air cells when they think about ice cream. They really don’t think partially coalesced fat globules. But it’s really fun to connect the science of ice cream to the common knowledge people have about this product they eat so much.

If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?

If I wasn’t an ice cream scientist, I think that I would have been a motivational speaker. When I was a kid, my parents would send me to camp, and I remember having a lot of motivational speakers that would come in and talk to us. I always wanted to do that as a kid. So it’s either between that or a sport medicine doctor, because that was the track I was on in college. So if I didn’t figure out food science, I probably would have gone back to sports medicine. But I’m glad I didn’t go down that path, because I think I have one of the coolest and sweetest jobs—pun intended—that exists on planet Earth.

You’ve been hosting Ice Cream Sundays on Instagram Live since May. What inspired this?

At the beginning of quarantine, I was like, "What am I going to do? I can't travel anywhere. What am I going to do with all this extra time?" I was on Instagram, and I started seeing people at the very beginning of this make all this bread. And I was like, "I need to start talking about ice cream more. Ice cream can’t be left out of this conversation."

I started making ice cream and posting here and there, and people would ask me about it, and I would ask them, "Do you have an ice cream maker?" I put a poll up and 70, 80 percent of people who replied did not have ice cream makers. So I was like, "How am I going to make people happy with ice cream if all I do is show photos and they can’t make it?" Then I decided to make a no-churn ice cream. That’s not how you make it in the industry, but it’s how you make it at home if you don’t have an ice cream machine. I think it was around May 3, I decided I was going to do an Instagram Live. I’m going to call it Ice Cream Sundays with Dr. Maya, and I’ll just see where it goes from there.

I did one, and from the beginning, people were so in love with it. Then I thought, "Whoa, I guess I should continue doing this." I’ve made a calendar. People really attend. People make the ice cream. People watch me on Live. I’ve always wanted to have a television show on ice cream. I figured, if I can’t do a show on ice cream right now on a major network, I might as well start a show on Instagram.

What advice do you give to young people interested in becoming ice cream scientists?

My advice is: If you want to do it, do it. Don’t forget to work hard, but have fun along the way. And if ice cream isn’t necessarily the realm for you, make sure whatever you do makes your heart flutter. My heart flutters when I think about ice cream. I am so intrigued with it. So if you find something that makes your heart flutter, no one can ever take away your desire for it. If it is ice cream, we can get down and dirty with it. I can tell them about the science behind it, the biology, the microbiology that goes into ice cream itself. But I just encourage people to follow their heart and have fun with whatever they do.

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?

If we’re talking just general flavors, I love a good cookies and cream. I’m an Oreo fan. I also make a double butter candy pecan that is my absolute jam.