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Lexicography is the study of lexicons, and is divided into two separate academic disciplines. It is the art of compiling dictionaries.[1]

There is some disagreement on the definition of lexicology, as distinct from lexicography. Some use "lexicology" as a synonym for theoretical lexicography; others use it to mean a branch of linguistics pertaining to the inventory of words in a particular language.

A person devoted to lexicography is called a lexicographer and is, according to a jest of Samuel Johnson, a "harmless drudge".[2][3]


Generally, lexicography focuses on the design, compilation, use and evaluation of general dictionaries, i.e. dictionaries that provide a description of the language in general use. Such a dictionary is usually called a general dictionary or LGP dictionary (Language for General Purpose). Specialized lexicography focuses on the design, compilation, use and evaluation of specialized dictionaries, i.e. dictionaries that are devoted to a (relatively restricted) set of linguistic and factual elements of one or more specialist subject fields, e.g. legal lexicography. Such a dictionary is usually called a specialized dictionary or Language for specific purposes dictionary and following Nielsen 1994, specialized dictionaries are either multi-field, single-field or sub-field dictionaries.

It is now widely accepted that lexicography is a scholarly discipline in its own right and not a sub-branch of applied linguistics, as the chief object of study in lexicography is the dictionary (see e.g. Bergenholtz/Nielsen/Tarp 2009).

Lexicography is the practice of creating books, computer programs, or databases that reflect lexicographical work and are intended for public use. These include dictionaries and thesauri which are widely accessible resources that present various aspects of lexicology, such as spelling, pronunciation, and meaning.

Lexicographers are tasked with defining simple words as well as figuring out how compound or complex words or words with many meanings can be clearly explained. They also make decisions regarding which words should be kept, added, or removed from a dictionary. They are responsible for arranging lexical material (usually alphabetically) to facilitate understanding and navigation.[4]


Coined in English 1680, the word "lexicography" derives from the Greek λεξικογράφος (lexikographos), "lexicographer",[5] from λεξικόν (lexicon), neut. of λεξικός lexikos, "of or for words",[6] from λέξις (lexis), "speech", "word"[7] (in turn from λέγω (lego), "to say", "to speak"[8]) and γράφω (grapho), "to scratch, to inscribe, to write".[9]


Practical lexicographic work involves several activities, and the compilation of well-crafted dictionaries requires careful consideration of all or some of the following aspects:

  • profiling the intended users (i.e. linguistic and non-linguistic competences) and identifying their needs
  • defining the communicative and cognitive functions of the dictionary
  • selecting and organizing the components of the dictionary
  • choosing the appropriate structures for presenting the data in the dictionary (i.e. frame structure, distribution structure, macro-structure, micro-structure and cross-reference structure)
  • selecting words and affixes for systematization as entries
  • selecting collocations, phrases and examples
  • choosing lemma forms for each word or part of word to be lemmatized
  • defining words
  • organizing definitions
  • specifying pronunciations of words
  • labeling definitions and pronunciations for register and dialect, where appropriate
  • selecting equivalents in bi- and multi-lingual dictionaries
  • translating collocations, phrases and examples in bi- and multilingual dictionaries
  • designing the best way in which users can access the data in printed and electronic dictionaries

One important goal of lexicography is to keep the lexicographic information costs incurred by dictionary users as low as possible. Nielsen (2008) suggests relevant aspects for lexicographers to consider when making dictionaries as they all affect the users' impression and actual use of specific dictionaries.

Theoretical lexicography concerns the same aspects as lexicography, but aims to develop principles that can improve the quality of future dictionaries, for instance in terms of access to data and lexicographic information costs. Several perspectives or branches of such academic dictionary research have been distinguished: 'dictionary criticism' (or evaluating the quality of one or more dictionaries, e.g. by means of reviews (see Nielsen 1999), 'dictionary history' (or tracing the traditions of a type of dictionary or of lexicography in a particular country or language), 'dictionary typology' (or classifying the various genres of reference works, such as dictionary versus encyclopedia, monolingual versus bilingual dictionary, general versus technical or pedagogical dictionary), 'dictionary structure' (or formatting the various ways in which the information is presented in a dictionary), 'dictionary use' (or observing the reference acts and skills of dictionary users), and 'dictionary IT' (or applying computer aids to the process of dictionary compilation).

One important consideration is the status of 'bilingual lexicography', or the compilation and use of the bilingual dictionary in all its aspects (see e.g. Nielsen 1994). In spite of a relatively long history of this type of dictionary, it is often said[according to whom?] to be less developed in a number of respects than its unilingual counterpart, especially in cases where one of the languages involved is not a major language. Not all genres of reference works are available in interlingual versions, e.g. LSP, learners' and encyclopedic types, although sometimes these challenges produce new subtypes, e.g. 'semi-bilingual' or 'bilingualised' dictionaries such as Hornby's (Oxford) Advanced Learner's Dictionary English-Chinese, which have been developed by translating existing monolingual dictionaries (see Marello 1998).


Traces of lexicography can be identified as early late 4th millennium BCE, with the first known examples being Sumerian cuneiform texts uncovered in the city of Uruk. Ancient lexicography usually consisted of word lists documenting a language's lexicon. Other early word lists have been discovered in Egyptian, Akkadian, Sanskrit, and Eblaite, and take the shape of mono- and bilingual word lists. They were organized in different ways including by subject and part of speech. The first extensive glosses, or word lists with accompanying definitions, began to appear around 300 BCE, and the discipline begins to develop more steadily. Lengthier glosses started to emerge in the literary cultures of antiquity, including Greece, Rome, China, India, Sasanian Persia, and the Middle East. In 636, Isidore of Seville published the first formal etymological compendium. The word dictionarium was first applied to this type of text by the late 14th century.[10][11][12]

With the invention and spread of Gutenberg's printing press in the 15th century, lexicography flourished. Dictionaries became increasingly widespread, and their purpose shifted from a way to store lexical knowledge to a mode of disseminating lexical information. Modern lexicographical practices began taking shape during the 18th and 19th centuries, led by notable lexicographers such as Samuel Johnson, Vladimir Dal, the Brothers Grimm, Noah Webster, James Murray, Peter Mark Roget, Joseph Emerson Worcester, and others.[10][11][12]

During the 20th century, the invention of computers changed lexicography again. With access to large databases, finding lexical evidence became significantly faster and easier. Corpus research also enables lexicographers to discriminate different senses of a word based on said evidence. Additionally, lexicographers were now able to work nonlinearly, rather than being bound to a traditional lexicographical ordering like alphabetical ordering.[13]

In the early 21st century, the increasing ubiquity of artificial intelligence began to impact the field, which had traditionally been a time-consuming, detail-oriented task. The advent of AI has been hailed by some as the "end of lexicography".[14] Others are skeptical that human lexicographers will be outmoded in a field studying the particularly human substance of language.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jackson, Howard (2017-10-02), "English lexicography in the Internet era", The Routledge Handbook of Lexicography, Routledge, pp. 540–553, doi:10.4324/9781315104942-34, ISBN 978-1-315-10494-2, retrieved 2022-09-16
  2. ^ "Lexicographer job profile | Prospects.ac.uk". www.prospects.ac.uk. Archived from the original on 2018-10-29. Retrieved 2018-10-29.
  3. ^ Johnson, Samuel (1785). A Dictionary of the English Language. London: J.F. and C. Rivington, et al.
  4. ^ Dzharasova, T. T. (2020). English lexicology and lexicography : theory and practice (2 ed.). Almaty: Al-Farabi Kazakh National University. pp. 93–94. ISBN 978-601-04-0595-0.
  5. ^ λεξικογράφος Archived 2021-04-12 at the Wayback Machine, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  6. ^ λεξικός Archived 2021-05-14 at the Wayback Machine, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  7. ^ λέξις Archived 2021-04-17 at the Wayback Machine, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  8. ^ λέγω Archived 2021-04-21 at the Wayback Machine, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, An Intermediate Greek–English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  9. ^ γράφω Archived 2021-04-13 at the Wayback Machine, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  10. ^ a b Durkin, Philip (2015). The Oxford Handbook of Lexicography (online ed.). Oxford Academic. pp. 605–615.
  11. ^ a b Hartmann, Reinhard (1986). The History of Lexicography. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co. p. 24.
  12. ^ a b Hans, Patrick (1 July 2013). The Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics (online ed.). Oxford Academic. pp. 506–521.
  13. ^ Hans, Patrick (1 July 2013). The Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics (online ed.). Oxford Academic. pp. 528–535.
  14. ^ de Schryver, Gilles-Maurice (December 2023). "Generative AI and Lexicography: The Current State of the Art Using ChatGPT". International Journal of Lexicography. 36 (4): 356 – via Oxford Academic.
  15. ^ de Schryver, GIlles-Maurice (December 2023). "Generative AI and Lexicography: The Current State of the Art Using ChatGPT". International Journal of Lexicography. 36 (4): 355–387 – via Oxford Academic.

Further reading[edit]

  • Atkins, B.T.S. & Rundell, Michael (2008) The Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography, Oxford U.P. ISBN 978-0-19-927771-1
  • Béjoint, Henri (2000) Modern Lexicography: An Introduction, Oxford U.P. ISBN 978-0-19-829951-6
  • Considine, John, ed. (2019) The Cambridge World History of Lexicography. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107178861
  • Bergenholtz, H., Nielsen, S., Tarp, S. (eds.): Lexicography at a Crossroads: Dictionaries and Encyclopedias Today, Lexicographical Tools Tomorrow. Peter Lang 2009. ISBN 978-3-03911-799-4
  • Bergenholtz, Henning & Tarp, Sven (eds.) (1995) Manual of Specialised Lexicography: The Preparation of Specialised Dictionaries, J. Benjamins. ISBN 978-90-272-1612-0
  • Green, Jonathon (1996) Chasing the Sun: Dictionary-Makers and the Dictionaries They Made, J. Cape. ISBN 0-7126-6216-2
  • Hartmann, R.R.K. (2001) Teaching and Researching Lexicography, Pearson Education. ISBN 978-0-582-36977-1
  • Hartmann, R.R.K. (ed.) (2003) Lexicography: Critical Concepts, Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 3 volumes. ISBN 978-0-415-25365-9
  • Hartmann, R.R.K. & James, Gregory (comps.) (1998/2001) Dictionary of Lexicography, Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-14144-4
  • Inglis, Douglas (2004) Cognitive Grammar and lexicography. Payap University Graduate School Linguistics Department.
  • Kirkness, Alan (2004) "Lexicography", in The Handbook of Applied Linguistics ed. by A. Davies & C. Elder, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 54–81. ISBN 978-1-4051-3809-3
  • Landau, Sidney (2001) Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography, Cambridge U.P. 2nd ed. ISBN 0-521-78512-X
  • Marello, Carla (1998) "Hornby's bilingualized dictionaries", in International Journal of Lexicography 11,4, pp. 292–314.
  • Nielsen, Sandro (1994) The Bilingual LSP Dictionary, G. Narr. ISBN 978-3-8233-4533-6
  • Nielsen, Sandro (2008) "The effect of lexicographical information costs on dictionary making and use", in Lexikos (AFRILEX-reeks/series 18), pp. 170–189.
  • Nielsen, Sandro (2009): "Reviewing printed and electronic dictionaries: A theoretical and practical framework". In S. Nielsen/S. Tarp (eds): Lexicography in the 21st Century. In honour of Henning Bergenholtz. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 23–41. ISBN 978-90-272-2336-4.
  • Ooi, Vincent (1998) Computer Corpus Lexicography, Edinburgh U.P. [1] ISBN 0-7486-0815-X
  • Zgusta, Ladislav (1971) Manual of lexicography (Janua Linguarum. Series maior 39). Prague: Academia / The Hague, Paris: Mouton. ISBN 978-90-279-1921-2

External links[edit]