A Letter to a Prospective Lexicographer

We regularly receive letters from people who want an editorial job at M-W and ask for more information on lexicography. It’s my job to answer those letters. Here is the response I wish I could send.

Thank you for your interest in becoming an editor at Merriam-Webster.  I am happy to share some information on the field of lexicography with you.

There are only three formal requirements for becoming a Merriam-Webster editor. First, we respectfully ask that you be a native speaker of English. I think I should break this to you now, before you begin shopping for tweeds and practicing your “tally ho what”: we focus primarily on American English. It’s not that we don’t like British English and its speakers. Indeed, we have an instinctual, deep love for any people who, upon encountering a steamed pudding with currants in it for the first time, thought, “The name of this shall be ‘Spotted Dick’.” But since we are the oldest American dictionary company around, and we are located in a particularly American part of the world, we feel it’s best to play to our strengths.

Second, we ask that you have a degree from an accredited college or university. It needn’t be an advanced degree, nor does it need to be a linguistics degree. Dare I say it? I dare: most of us got degrees in things other than linguistics. While you are gasping in outrage, incredulity, and a little bit of disdain, allow me to say that all Merriam-Webster lexicographers end up dealing with words from a wide variety of fields–economics, business, physics, math, cooking, music, law, ancient hair-care techniques, and so on–and it helps to have a cadre of trained experts in those fields who will look up at you dolefully from their own defining batch when you too-nonchalantly wander over to their cubicle and ask them for their opinions on “EBITDA.”

If you feel that this information on degrees is so broad as to be unhelpful, know that we seem to collect medievalists for some reason. Our costume parties are awkward, rare, and yet entirely historically accurate.

Third, you must be possessed of sprachgefühl. This is an innate sense of the rhythm of language, as well as one of those delicious German words you’ll hear thrown around the office a bit (but not as often as you’ll hear “weltschmerz”). How do you know if you have sprachgefühl? You don’t know. Even if you think you might have it, you won’t really know if you are possessed of it until you’re here, letting the sentence “It’s time to plant out the lettuce” pad around inside your head, paying careful attention to how it rubs up against the language centers of your brain. Sprachgefühl is also evidently one of those things, like eyesight and hearing, that can dull with overuse: after several decades of working here, you will find that occasionally you go a little deaf as regards the natural rhythm of English, and you’ll trudge to your car at the end of a very long Thursday convinced that you are actually a native speaker of some weird Low German dialect and not English.

It’s okay if sprachgefühl eludes you; once you make this life-changing discovery, you are free to quit and pursue a career where your average weekly wage will not be a buck-fifty and as many Necco wafers as you can nick from the receptionist’s candy bowl at the end of every work day.

Those are the formal requirements for a job here. I would add these caveats regarding the lexicographical lifestyle:

1. In addition to sprachgefühl, it is also a good idea to be possessed of what the late lexicographer Fred Cassidy called “sitzfleisch.” Lexicography is so sedentary a calling that it makes load-bearing walls look busy by comparison.

2. It is not a good idea to come in thinking that you are All That as regards grammar and usage. You will have to set aside your grammatical prejudices in light of evidence, and if you are nothing but swagger and self-aggrandizement, then you will fall particularly hard the first time the Director of Defining tells you it’s totally idiomatic to use “nauseous” to mean “feeling sick.” Swagger and self-aggrandizement are not part of the lexicographer’s idiom. Fidgeting, social awkwardness, and a penchant for bad puns are.

3. “I knew that the work in which I engaged is generally considered as drudgery for the blind, as the proper toil of artless industry; a task that requires neither the light of learning, nor the activity of genius, but may be successfully performed without any higher quality than that of bearing burdens with dull patience, and beating the track of the alphabet with sluggish resolution.”

Heed the words of His Cantankerousness Samuel Johnson, the patron saint of the lexicographer. This passage is excerpted from his 1747 letter to the Earl of Chesterfield in which Johnson proposes writing a new dictionary of the English language. “Bearing burdens with dull patience,” “beating the track of the alphabet with sluggish resolution”–and that’s what he thought before he started writing his dictionary.

It may well be that none of this dissuades you. That’s fine: slight derangement is not grounds for disqualification from a career in lexicography.

You should know, however, as you move forward in your search that jobs in lexicography are few and far between. Our late Editor in Chief used to tell people it was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. This is so vague as to be maddening, so I am happy to clarify: it is a matter of being in one of the offices of a dictionary company just as the Editor in Chief says, “I think we may need to hire some more lexicographers.”

Take heart: one of my coworkers wrote once every three months for over a year about editorial jobs until finally our Director of Defining hired her. She’s a fabulous editor and we are lucky to have her. She also has a linguistics degree. All God’s critters got a place in the choir.

It’s worth noting that, though lexicography moves so slowly it is technically a solid, it is nonetheless changing. New online tools mean that you have more information at your fingertips, which means you must engage that sprachgefühl a lot more and know how to use a computer. (You’d be surprised.) Modern lexicographers have the luxury of writing for an online medium, where space is not at a premium and no one has to proofread the dictionary’s end-of-line breaks in 4-point type on blue galleys ever, ever again. When I came on, all new editorial hires were required to read and take extensive notes on the front matter to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. This is no longer required, thanks to the tireless work of Amnesty International. And, of course, we’re allowed to talk inside the building now.

I hope this information, while not particularly encouraging, is helpful. If you are still interested, against all better judgment, in a career in lexicography, do feel free to send us your cover letter and resumé. We will keep it on file for a year, occasionally taking it out to marvel at your enthusiasm and shake our heads in wonder.


Filed under general, lexicography

34 responses to “A Letter to a Prospective Lexicographer

  1. I’m using sitzfleisch next chance I get. The word would be an asset to anyone’s vocabulary.

  2. Fr. Aaron Orear

    You’re not only adept at defining words, you’re darn good at using them. This is not only very funny, but also pretty prose.

  3. Peter Sokolowski

    I thought the standard response was: “Put the dictionary down, and back away slowly.”

  4. johnwcowan

    Truly, it would be much better to send a letter such as this than whatever boring corporatese your boring corporate masters compel you to concoct. The life of a job-seeker is hard enough without wading through additional masses of platitudinous bumf that contain only one salient word: “No”. At least their fancy should be tickled from time to time with the occasional EBITDA (a purely non-GAAP concept, as Wikipedia tells us), and if it doesn’t tickle them, they have no business applying for a job with you in the first place.

    But I must register one note of protest against your otherwise ornate and convincing narrative. While I yield to no one in my admiration of language varieties like Öömrang (as well as their names), there can be little doubt that English is, in fact, the weirdest Low German(ic) dialect of them all.

  5. You mean you hire accountants? For the accounting-type words, like EBITDA? Oooh baby, I may have found my new career aspiration!

  6. Lynn Kauppi

    I wish I had the health and the opportunity to even apply. I’m an editor and copyeditor who loves to read about words and languages. I’m the sort who reads books about the OED’s history and Tolkien’s time at the OED. Perhaps in another life.
    I’ve added your blog to my RSS feed.

    Lynn Allan Kauppi, PhD
    Codex Editorial Services

  7. Love it! And I am interested to note your accurate borrowings from my adopted language German (although I don’t think I have come across “Weltschmerz” used in real German in thirty years of living here). But I couldn’t possibly apply to your outfit, because I have one disqualifying blemish (cupping my hands to mask the shocked whisper) – I am British.

  8. H. S. Gudnason

    Damn it, johncowan! You pipped me.

  9. RC

    “Take heart: one of my coworkers wrote once every three months for over a year about editorial jobs until finally our Director of Defining hired her.” Should you not say “…more than a year…”? Should you hire me? You should.

  10. Luiz Mello

    I would apply apply for any job that would reject me with a letter like this.

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  12. Luiz Benevides

    I wonder what would be the answer for the Brazilian freak out in the cold waiting to get his copy of his unabridged dictionary autographed by the pop lexicographer. Hope it’s worth a post.

  13. Jonas

    Thanks for the brilliant post! I actually laughed out loud, and not just thought *lol*. Greetings from a fellow lexicographer (this one from a MHG dictionary)!

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  15. GREAT! First, I laughed out loud, then I stopped and thought ‘darn, it’s true’ (I’m a lexicographer myself), then I laughed again and pinned a copy of the letter to my office door…
    Thanks for reminding me of why I really love this job 😉

    • korystamper

      Wow, another lexicographer in the wild! So to speak.

      Thanks for the kind words, and I’m slightly jealous that you get an office door….

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  17. Of course English is “some weird Low German”, it has just been fiddled about with a lot … 😉

  18. Hahaha, never thought I’d ever come across ‘sitzfleisch’ in an English text 😀

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  20. rumpelstiltskin>hermes> kantharos>lexicography

    I’m not quite sure how I got here, but then again I am. All I can say is that I was lead. I’m afraid all that can be said

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  24. This literally sounds like a dream-come-true. My awkwardness would thrive there.

  25. Wow. My sister mom and surprisingly my father sent me some memorable gifts via mail and it made me eyes leak. I don’t know why…but I feel like I am repentant to the idea of life and ready like always to try try harder because I’m not opposed to stepping out of opposite world and jumping into reality. I guess..I mean I know it’s time to wake up, smell the roses of all colors and drink so coffee that I so am over due for. Yup that’s a wrap. I love all and starting to love myself. Blessings to all as I take it upon myself to be the best version of myself that I can be because Thee Lord knows that’s what I’ve been striving for since day one. It appears my so-so photogenic memory gets in the way of my logical memories. I know what I know and that is great however I am ready to start thinking so I can LEARN!
    -Veronica_roni….ME!! ❤

  26. Hi Kory,

    I want that unicorn, a job as a lexicographer. Are you aware of any openings?

  27. Reblogged this on Peace of Writing and commented:
    Curiosity about lexicographers struck me today when I watched a video in my Facebook news feed about the difficulty of defining millennials’ usage of “basic” from the point of view of a lexicographer. I started to wonder, “How does someone become a lexicographer? Maybe this something I can do?!” But after reading this very interesting post, I think I will just admire this calling from afar.

  28. And somehow, this made me feel even more intrigued. I was the awkward kid in school who got in trouble for reading the dictionary or thesaurus in English class. The teacher laughed about the situation, of course. The puzzle of how words fit together was so compelling, I couldn’t help myself! My “falling down the rabbit hole” on the internet is going into hours of endless etymology word searches. Riveting stuff, I tell you!

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