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Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
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What is Lexicography?

Lexicography is the editing or making of a dictionary or other reference text; it also includes the compilation and study of dictionaries. The modern study of lexicography has roots in ancient Sumeria where word lists were recorded on clay tablets to teach people the structure of cuneiform, the world’s earliest written language. The ancient civilizations of India, Greece, and Egypt used lexicographic methods similar to the clay tablets of Sumeria as a way to teach their respective languages. Lexicography evolved alongside the languages of ancient civilizations. When civilizations began to interact, the discipline of lexicography expanded to include translations. Over time, dictionaries have developed into the modern authoritative sources for proper spelling, pronunciation, and use of language we are familiar with today.

Practical vs. Theoretical Lexicography

Lexicography consists of two fields, practical and theoretical. Practical lexicography produces physical and digital dictionaries. Theoretical lexicography studies lexicon elements and the organization of dictionary information.

Practical lexicography encompasses the discipline of compiling, writing, and editing dictionaries for general and specialized use. The goal of practical lexicography is to produce insightful, accurate, easy-to-use dictionaries that improve literacy. Dictionaries are indispensable language tools that allow people to communicate effectively by providing an authoritative reference for the meaning of words as well as how to pronounce and spell them. A good example of practical lexicography’s aim is Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary has word definitions, pronunciation and spelling guides, and common definitions of words in regular use in an easily accessible format.

Theoretical lexicography is similar to practical lexicography but emphasizes the study of dictionary organization over the production of dictionaries. Theoretical lexicography’s goal is to produce research to create better dictionaries in the future. Theoretical lexicography increases the usability of dictionaries by improving information organization and structure. Theoretical lexicography also pays close attention to the specific needs of users in specialized industries as well as how dictionary information is accessed. An example of theoretical lexicography’s aim is Black’s Law Dictionary, a specialized dictionary that includes words used in law practices easily navigable by knowledgable law professionals.

History of Lexicography

Although the word lexicography originated in the 17th century, the work denoted by lexicography can be traced as far back as 2400 BCE when Sumerians began to compile lists of words with glosses to help people learn cuneiform. Glosses are translations or explanations of words or phrases. The ancient civilizations of Greece, Egypt, China, and India utilized bilingual wordlists similar to those of the Sumerians to teach and standardize their language. These are some of the earliest examples of lexicography.

Ancient and medieval civilizations compiled early iterations of dictionaries in several languages over the course of thousands of years. Circa AD 1218, the first modern iteration of the dictionary appeared with the publication of John Garland’s Dictionarius. In AD 1531, Robert Estienne’s Latin Dictionarium, Seu Latinae Linguae Thesaurus was published; the text formed the foundation of modern European lexicography and served as a template for the creation of modern dictionaries.

As lexicography developed as a field, vulgar languages became more common in dictionaries and reference texts; a transition that reflected the slow dissemination of language from centralized literate bodies such as England’s Christian church to the more general public.

In the early 19th century, the scientific study of language and its structure, or linguistics, began to take shape. Linguistics studies how languages develop, relate to one another, and change over time, making it an academic discipline that parallels and informs lexicography.

In AD 2000, the Oxford English Dictionary, an authority on the meaning, pronunciation, usage, and spelling of English words launched an online version of its dictionary, marking the beginning of a transition to digital reference texts. Print reference texts are still widely used, but the accessibility and ease of use of online reference texts have increased the popularity of digital reference texts.

The history of lexicography follows the development of Western languages closely–particularly the development of English, giving the impression that lexicography is a distinctly Eurocentric discipline. However, this impression is simply that: an impression. In general, lexicography developed at more or less the same pace around the world.


A lexicographer is responsible for recording a language’s words in a dictionary. Lexicographers research, organize, define, and compile words into dictionaries for general and specialized use. Lexicographers may also be responsible for researching a word’s etymology, or origin. The duties of lexicographers vary according to geographic region and lexicographic traditions. For example, Asian lexicographic traditions still utilize word lists similar in nature to those used by ancient civilizations. Although some elements of ancient lexicography have persisted to the present day, the duties of ancient lexicographers and modern lexicographers are quite different.

Ancient lexicographers were primarily concerned with the literal preservation of language and thus were primarily responsible for recording information. Modern lexicographers are also responsible for recording information but have the added difficulty of organizing the monumental amount of information made available by the internet. Unlike ancient lexicographers who utilized historic precedent to study and define a language, modern lexicographers place greater emphasis on monitoring the changes in a language’s usage. Lexicography’s shift in focus is largely a result of the sheer volume of communication that takes place every day, but the genesis of the shift can be traced back to renowned lexicographer Noah Webster. Noah Webster was an American lexicographer whose work helped establish the pedigree of American English. Webster’s work insisted that the grammar, spelling, and usage of language are subject to patterns of common usage, not abstract, esoteric rules.

Engraving of celebrated American Lexicographer, Noah Webster

Engraving of celebrated American Lexicographer, Noah Webster

Lesson Summary

Lexicography is the practice of compiling dictionaries for general and specialized use and is divided into two fields: practical lexicography, which focuses on the production of dictionaries, and theoretical lexicography, which focuses on the study of dictionaries. Dictionaries are tools used to check the spelling, pronunciation, usage, and definitions of words. Modern dictionaries are the descendants of West Asian lexicographic tools such as wordlists. Ancient lexicography originated in Sumeria and was primarily concerned with the preservation of language. Modern lexicography is also concerned with the preservation of language but is much more attuned to changes in usage, spelling, and pronunciation that occur through common use. Lexicographers, like Noah Webster, who lent his name to one of the most popular dictionaries, are professionals responsible for researching, organizing, defining, and compiling the words found in dictionaries.

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