In the comments
to yesterday's rant
I'd love to hear about how dictionaries are made, but I'm at least as curious about what a lexicographer actually does. I mean, once you get to work, then what?
Do you even "go" to work? As in, to an office? If so, do you spend long hours in a lab, staring deep into the nooks and crannies of old words to make sure they won't break down under the weight of modern expression? Do you gather in soundproof rooms, speaking new words aloud to determine how to spell them phonetically? Do you take field trips with colleagues to remote provinces to examine language in the wild? Do tell!
Well, because I am the Editor in Chief of Oxford's American dictionaries, and thus charged with herding lexicographers, I mainly answer email. Lots and lots and lots of email. And I plan out the books, which is like directing a military campaign, but with numbers of entries and new features as our targets and objectives. And I go talk to people about dictionaries, which I call "dictionary evangelism," and which certain other people call "Quick! Hide! Erin's coming!"
I like the "lab" image, because I do like to say that lexicographers are like taxonomic scientists. We want to describe the whole world of words and slot every one in its proper place, nicely labeled and with clear chains of evolutionary inheritance. Unfortunately, the fossil record (etymology) for most words is just as spotty as the fossil record for most animals...
And, as for field trips, we do take them, in a manner of speaking! Most lexicographers I know read things far, far from their normal areas of interest so as to find new and unusual words, or just to get a better feel for the variety of English. For instance, I read a lot of magazines for work, most of which I have a personal interest in (Threads Magazine, New Scientist, etc.) but I also read The Oldie, which is a magazine for British senior citizens. It's like a palate cleanser, reading something so different. It helps you taste your everyday language better.
Whenever anyone asks me about what it's like to be a lexicographer, I try to send them this quotation, from lexicographer James R. Hulbert (one of the lexicographers who worked on the Dictionary of American English):
"I know of no more enjoyable intellectual activity than working on a dictionary. Unlike most research, lexicography rarely sends one in fruitless quests; one does not devote days, months, or even years to testing an hypothesis only to decide that it is not tenable, or to attempting to collect evidence to prove a theory only to have to conclude that sufficient facts are no longer in existence to clinch it. It does not make one's life anxious, nor build up hopes only to have them collapse. Every day one is confronted by new problems, usually small but absorbingly interesting; at the end of the day one feels healthily tired, but content in the thought that one has accomplished something and advanced the whole work towards its completion."
Of course this doesn't even begin to touch on everything that goes into a dictionary ? what the orthoepists (pronunciation editors), etymologists, or the folks who double-check all the verb forms do... so, you might want to check out this great book about what lexicographers do every day: Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography by Sidney Landau.