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.”

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad

Cheerble
Cheerble

No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.
Cheerble

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.
Cheerble

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

12 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Easter Bunnies

This child clearly can't get enough Easter Bunny in her life.
This child clearly can't get enough Easter Bunny in her life.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Every year, thousands of families, church groups, and event planners enlist entertainment companies to dispatch a costumed bunny for their Easter celebrations. These performers often endure oppressive heat, frightened children, and other indignities to bring joy to the season.

It can be a thankless job, which is why Mental Floss approached several hares and their handlers for some insight into what makes for a successful appearance, the numerous occupational hazards, and why they can be harassed while holding a giant carrot. Here’s a glimpse of what goes on under the ears.

1. They might be watching netflix under the mask.

Has a bunny ever seemed slow to respond to your child? He or she might be in the middle of a binge-watch. Jennifer Ellison, the sales and marketing manager for San Diego Kids’ Party Rentals and a bunny wrangler during the Easter season, says that extended party engagements might lead their furry foot soldiers to seek distractions while in costume. “We book the bunny by the hour and he is often booked for multiple hour blocks,” she says. “Listening to music definitely helps the time pass.” One of her bunny friends who does a lot of shopping mall appearances has even rigged up a harness that can cradle a smart phone. “It sits above the bunny's nose, resting right at eye level for the performer inside, easily allowing the performer to stream Netflix, scroll through Facebook, or check emails.”

2. They can’t walk on wet grass.

Bunnies that appear at private functions, like backyard parties or egg hunts, have to maintain the illusion of being a character and not a human in a furry costume. According to Albert Joseph, the owner of Albert Joseph Entertainment in San Francisco and a 30-year veteran of Easter engagements, one of the cardinal rules is never to set foot on wet grass. Why? “They wear regular shoes under their giant bunny feet,” he says. “If they step on wet grass and then walk on cement, they’ll make a human foot print, not a bunny print.”

3. There’s a reason they might not pick up your kid.

Bunnies might be amenable to posing for a photo with your child on their lap, but they’re probably not going to grab the little tyke and sweep them off their feet. According to Steve Rothenberg, a veteran performer and owner of Talk of the Town Entertainment in Rockville, Maryland, deadlifting a kid is against the rules. “The last thing you want is to lift them up and have them knock off your head,” he says.

4. Giant carrots will invite inappropriate behavior.

A person dressed as the Easter bunny.
As the 3-foot-long carrot proves, adults are easily the least mature guests at a child's Easter party.
lisafx/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Joseph’s warren of party bunnies usually come equipped with a 3-foot-long giant carrot as a prop. While children are amused by the oversized vegetable, the adults at the parties usually can’t help making observations. “Practically every visit, there’s always someone saying, ‘My, what a big carrot you have,’” he says.

On one occasion, Joseph attended a function at a retirement home. One of the women, who he estimated to be in her 80s, commented on his big feet in a lascivious manner. “She told me she was in room 37.”

5. Clothes make the bunny.

Easter bunny at the White House.
Every year, a well-dressed Easter bunny visits Washington, D.C. for the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

While “naked” (i.e., unclothed) bunnies remain popular, Ellison’s lineup also includes Mr. Bunny, a “classy lad with a top hat and vest,” and a Mrs. Bunny sporting a purple dress. Why would kids care if a bunny has sartorial sense? “Kids can probably better relate to a giant, furry character if it's dressed like a human,” Ellison says. “[And] we just thought the costumes looked cute.”

6. They can’t wear dark clothing underneath.

If a bunny wants to wear a black shirt under his or her fur, it stands to reason there wouldn’t be any issue: It's all hidden from sight. But Joseph insists that his cast stick with white apparel only. In addition to being cooler, it serves a practical function. “There’s always an opportunity to see a little something around the neckline or near the feet,” he says. Light clothing helps preserve the character.

7. They use an upholstery cleaner for their heads.

Most bunny costumes can be tossed in any regular washing machine, with the feet going in a larger commercial-use unit. But the heads, which are typically massive and unwieldy, get special attention. “You know those upholstery cleaners you can rent from a grocery store?” Joseph asks. “We use those. There’s a wand attachment to it for cleaning carpet.”

8. There’s a trick to keeping cool.

Costumes made of fake fur in the spring can be a recipe for disaster—or at least some lightheadedness. While none of the bunnies we profiled had experienced fainting spells, Ellison says that the trick to staying cool is actually adding a layer underneath the outfit. “Light, breathable clothing underneath the suit usually does the trick, but some people choose to wear an ice vest under the suit as well.”

Many bunnies also work in intervals: 45 to 50 minutes “on,” and 10 to 15 minutes in a private area to cool off and drink water. “Clients are usually understanding and sympathetic of the bunny and will allow even more breaks if necessary,” Ellison says.

9. Mints are essential.

Bunnies may favor carrots and grass, but their human operators need something other than that in order to deal with the humidity. Rothenberg says that his bunnies usually nibble on mints while working a crowd. “They’ll typically chew gum or have some kind of mint to keep their throat from drying out,” he says.

10. They use bunny handlers to prevent knockdowns.

A person dressed as the Easter bunny.
An Easter Bunny makes a young girl's day.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Any professional bunny knows that having an assistant watching their back is the best way to ensure an appearance goes smoothly. “Your vision is limited and you can’t really look to the left or right,” Rothenberg says. “Having an assistant prevents kids from running up behind you.”

11. They have damaged butts.

In order to ease apprehensive kids, Joseph advocates for his bunnies to squat near a child rather than bend over. “It gets them at a child’s level so they can touch and feel for themselves,” he says. “But a bunny that does a lot of squatting winds up needing their [costume] butts re-sewn. I’ve repaired a lot of them.” Joseph will also invite mothers to sit on the bunny’s lap so fearful children are more likely to approach. “You don’t want to prod the kid,” he says.

12. They’re not just for easter.

While bunny costume season is a fleeting few weeks, companies are happy to roll out their rabbits for other occasions. Once, Ellison sent out a bunny for a customer’s Alice in Wonderland-themed gathering. “The client wanted the White Rabbit, so we dressed up our bunny in a vest and top hat and gave him an over-sized pocket watch. It worked out great.”

This piece originally ran in 2017.