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Lexicography

Lexicography

The English dictionary was not written by one person, nor in one take (not even in a single age). A dictionary is a living document that changes as new words and new definitions for existing words come to be. Dictionaries are created and maintained by people called lexicographers, who are tasked with compiling a list of every word in a given language. Lexicography is the work of maintaining these important texts. The history of lexicography dates back to ancient times, revealing the importance of a standardized list of words in any language.

Definition of Lexicography

The English dictionary, as we understand it today, is an alphabetized list of words and their definitions. Each dictionary entry typically includes the following features:

  • Word definition

  • List of synonyms for the word

  • Example of use

  • Pronunciation

  • Etymology (word origins)

Lexicography, Lexicography definition in the Dictionary, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The field of lexicography is responsible for the world's dictionaries.

So, the word lexicography would be situated in the dictionary somewhere between the words lexical and lexicology (a term we’ll explore a little later on). The entry might look a little something like:

Lex·i·cog·ra·phy (noun)

The process of compiling, editing, or studying a dictionary or other reference text.

Variants:

Lexicographical (adjective)

Lexicographically (adverb)

Etymology:

From the Greek affixes lexico- (meaning of words) + -graphy (meaning process of writing)

Principles of Lexicography

To gain a better understanding of the principles of lexicography, we should be familiar with the term lexeme.

Lexemes, also called word stems, are minimal units of lexical meaning that connect related forms of a word.

The word take is a lexeme.

The words took, taken, takes, and taking are versions that build on the lexeme take.

All the inflected versions of a lexeme (took, taken, etc.) are subordinate to the lexeme. So, in a dictionary, there would only be an entry for the word take (and not entries for the inflected versions).

Lexemes shouldn’t be confused with morphemes, which are the smallest meaningful units of language that can’t be subdivided. An example of a morpheme is the prefix -un, which, when added to a root word, means “not” or “the opposite of.” Morphemes are broken into “bound” and “free” morphemes; free morphemes are those that can stand alone as a word. Lexemes are essentially free morphemes, but a lexeme is not necessarily the same thing as a morpheme.

Lexemes are then assembled into a lexicon, which is a compilation of words in a language and their meanings. A lexicon is essentially the established vocabulary of a language or branch of knowledge (i.e. medical, legal, etc.).

In the twenty-first century, few people actually use a hard copy of a dictionary and instead opt for the electronic version. This has ushered in an age of electronic lexicography, or e-lexicography. Traditional reference sources such as Merriam-Webster's Dictionary and Encyclopædia Britannica now offer their content online.

Types of Lexicography

Whether we’re discussing traditional or e-lexicography, there are two types of lexicography: theoretical and practical.

Theoretical Lexicography

Theoretical lexicography is the study or description of dictionary organization. In other words, theoretical lexicography analyzes the vocabulary of a particular language and the way the lexicon is arranged. The goal is to create better, more user-friendly dictionaries in the future.

This type of lexicography serves to develop theories about structural and semantic associations among words in a dictionary. For example, Taber's Medical Dictionary is a specialized dictionary of medical terms for medical and legal professionals, and theoretical lexicography’s aim is to arrange those terms in such a way that would most benefit these users.

Taber’s Medical Dictionary pairs the medical lexicon "systole" (contraction of the chambers of the heart) with seven other associated medical conditions such as "aborted systole," "anticipated systole," and so on. This was an intentional choice by lexicographers based on principles of theoretical lexicography; it provides context so persons studying the term "systole" will be familiar with these related conditions.

Practical Lexicography

Practical lexicography is the applied discipline of writing, editing, and compiling words for generalized and specialized use in a dictionary. The aim of practical lexicography is to create an accurate and informative reference text that is a reliable asset to students and speakers of the language.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary is a good example of practical lexicography in use. The reputation of this dictionary is above reproach due in part to how long it’s been in print (and electronic use). Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary was printed as the United States' first unabridged dictionary in 1806, and it has since established itself as an authority in the realm of practical lexicography.

Lexicography and Lexicology

A quick note on the difference between lexicography and lexicology, as these terms may easily be confused with one another:

Lexicography, as we’ve established, is the process of compiling a dictionary. Lexicology, on the other hand, is the study of vocabulary. While these two areas of study are intertwined, since lexicography necessarily involves vocabulary, lexicology isn’t concerned with the arrangement of a lexicon.

Lexicology studies things like word etymology and morphological structures, the form, meaning, and use of words. You might think of lexicology as a level of language study, while lexicography is the technique of compiling and distinguishing the words of a language.

History of English Lexicography

The history of English lexicography begins with the foundation of the practice of lexicology, which dates back to ancient Sumeria (3200 BC). During this time, lists of words were printed on clay tablets to teach people cuneiform, an ancient writing system. As languages and cultures intermingled over time, lexicography came to include translations and specific criteria for the lexemes, such as proper spelling and pronunciation.

Lexicography, History of Lexicography Cuneiform example, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Cuneiform is a logo-syllabic script not specific to just one language but several.

We can trace the history of English lexicography back to the Old English period (5th century). This was a time when the language of the Roman church was Latin, which meant its priests needed to be knowledgeable in the language to read the bible. As the English-speaking monks learned and read these manuscripts, they would write single-word translations in the margins for themselves and future readers. This is believed to be the beginning of (bilingual) lexicography in English.

One of the more influential figures in English lexicology is Samuel Johnson, known in part for Johnson’s Dictionary (1755). This dictionary was so impactful due to a few of Johnson’s innovations to the dictionary format, such as quotations to illustrate the words. Johnson’s Dictionary is also known for its quirky and commonly cited definitions. Take his definition of lexicographer:

"A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words."1

Lexicography - Key takeaways

  • Lexicography is the process of compiling, editing, or studying a dictionary or other reference text.
  • Lexemes, also called word stems, are minimal units of lexical meaning that connect related forms of a word.
  • A lexicon is essentially the established vocabulary of a language or branch of knowledge (i.e. medical, legal, etc.).
  • There are two types of lexicography: theoretical and practice.
    • Theoretical lexicology is the study or description of dictionary organization.
    • Practical lexicology is the applied discipline of writing, editing, and compiling words for generalized and specialized use in a dictionary.

1. Johnson’s Dictionary. 1755.

Frequently Asked Questions about Lexicography

Lexicography is the process of compiling, editing, or studying a dictionary or other reference text. 

The two types of lexicography are practical and theoretical lexicography.

The main difference between lexicology and lexicography is that lexicology isn’t concerned with the arrangement of a lexicon and lexicography is. 

The importance of lexicography is that it is responsible for the compilation of the vocabulary of an entire language.

The main features of lexicography are lexemes, also called word stems, which are the foundation of a particular lexicon. 

Final Lexicography Quiz

Question

True or false: The English dictionary was written by one man.

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Answer

False.

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Question

Which of the following is not a typical feature of a dictionary entry?

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Answer

Morphological breakdown of the word.

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Question

What is the definition of lexicography?

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Answer

The process of compiling, editing, or studying a dictionary or other reference text. 

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Question

________  are minimal units of lexical meaning that connect related forms of a word.

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Answer

Lexemes.

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Question

From the list below, select the word that is a lexeme.

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Answer

Dig.

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Question

From the list below, select the word that is a lexeme.

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Answer

Communicate.

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Question

Why is the word shook not considered a lexeme?

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Answer

Because it's an inflected version of the word stem, shake.

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Question

Another term for word stem is ________. 

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Answer

Lexeme.

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Question

_________ is a compilation of words in a language and their meanings.

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Answer

A lexicon.

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Question

Select all that are a type of lexicography.

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Answer

Theoretical.

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Question

How is theoretical lexicography different from practical lexicography?

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Answer

Theoretical lexicography is the study or description of dictionary organization.

Practical lexicography is the applied discipline of writing, editing, and compiling words for generalized and specialized use in a dictionary.

Show question

Question

Which type of lexicography serves to develop theories about structural and semantic associations among words in a dictionary?

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Answer

Theoretical.

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Question

How old is the practice of lexicography?

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Answer

Lexicography dates back to 3200 BC when clay tablets were used to share cuneiform.

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Question

When is the first known use of English lexicography?

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Answer

The history of English lexicography dates back to the Old English period (5th century) when the priests of the Roman church had to learn and translate Latin text.

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Question

Who is Samuel Johnson?

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Answer

Samuel Johnson is one of the more influential figures in English lexicology, known in part for the innovative Johnson’s Dictionary (1755). 

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Question

_________ studies things like word etymology and morphological structures, the form, meaning, and use of words. 

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Answer

Lexicology.

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Question

What is the difference between lexicography and lexicology?

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Answer

Lexicography is the process of compiling a dictionary.

Lexicology is the study of vocabulary.

Lexicology isn't concerned with the arrangement of a lexicon.

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