Word of the Day


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter


the job of writing a dictionary

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The noun lexicography is formed from two Greek-based words, ‘lexicon’ meaning a book of words, and ‘-graphy’, used to form words that refer to writing, or more generally to fields of study. Lexicography was first used in 1680 while lexicographer, meaning a person who writes dictionaries, was first recorded about 20 years earlier. The related adjectives lexicographic and lexicographical are somewhat later, dating from the beginning and end respectively of the 18th century.


Macmillan Dictionary’s definition of lexicography focuses on the professional aspect of what the best-known lexicographer of all, Dr Samuel Johnson, called ‘the art or practice of writing dictionaries’. It is well known that Johnson was not a huge fan of the profession he helped to shape: his Dictionary defines a lexicographer as ‘a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words’ and refers to the activity itself as the epitome of dullness:

Dull: Not exhilarating, not delightful: as, ‘to make dictionaries is dull work‘.

Contrary to popular belief, many lexicographers are possessed of a sense of humour, so it may be that Dr Johnson was having a little joke at his own and his fellow drudges’ expense. Despite the profession’s unglamorous reputation, many people are interested in how dictionaries are being made in the modern online world. If you are one of them you can find out all by signing up for a brand new MOOC called Understanding English Dictionaries. The course is free and runs for six weeks. You can, of course, do as much or as little of it as you like. To find out more, check out the FutureLearn website.


“I am not yet so lost in lexicography, as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven.”
(Samuel Johnson)

Lexicographers are language reporters.”
(Erin McKean)

Related words

definition, dictionary, compile, entry

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

About the author

Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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