Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Harmless Drudgery and its Antidote

lex·i·cog·ra·pher noun a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge
-Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755

Every two years at about this time, an air of breathless anticipation descends on the Loungeurs. We consult the calendar frequently, obsess endlessly about minor details of expression, and even pause as we go down the aisle in the supermarket where they stock Grecian Formula. This can all mean only one thing: the biennial conference of the Dictionary Society of North America is on the horizon. When it arrives, we all depart en masse and spend a delightful three days, hobnobbing with our colleagues from the Anglosphere and beyond while engaging in real-time, hands-on, no-holds-barred action lexicography.

To appreciate the singularity of this event, you have to get your mind around the sharp contrast of conference conviviality with the day-to-day humdrum existence of the average lexicographer. At the conference, we actually get elbow to elbow with folks like us and talk about defs, prons, and etys (that's lexspeak for definitions, pronunciations, and etymologies). We get to listen to papers on aspects of lexicography in languages as diverse as Russian, Sanskrit, Romanian, and Basque (not to mention English). We stand face to face with people whose eyes don't glaze over when you tell them you're a lexicographer!

The DSNA conference experience, happily, is available to all. The lexicographer experience, ______________ly (fill in with adverb of your choice) is available to only a few, but this month, as a gesture to the conference, we wanted to give Lounge visitors a flavor of what the actual work of lexicography is like.

These days, being a lexicographer is mostly about sitting at a computer monitor, often in the seclusion of one's home, and working with a corpus - that is, a collection of text organized with the miracle of modern SGML or XML tagging. This allows for easy access to particulars of the corpus's content, sliced and diced in any way you please. You can't write a credible dictionary today without a corpus, so we lexicographers spend a good deal of our time poring over examples of words in context, taken from samples of written language and transcripts of spoken language.

How's it done? Since there's a vestige of spring in the air still, let's look at some examples of the word bud: in a completely raw form, representing every possible part of speech and inflection. Here's a sample of bud in KWIC format (that's an initialism for Key Word in Context). This is where the lexicographer's work begins.

1.  they heard other things . 'Meanings              budded    , flowered and died . If Ern Malley was
2.  eye on . He had several peonies , and the        buds      were literally covered in ants . If they
3.  The constable sighed , " All right ,             bud       , it 's your funeral . "The older
4.  said , " No worries you still have your          buds      Gia . " "BEST FRIENDS !" she yelled
5.  ossoms . Dogen would watch the plum blossom      budding   in early spring . He would gaze at them
6.  can still give you a run for your money ,        bud       . So , race me or not ? " Victor 's face
7.  plant reached up and out and branched and        budded    . A tree with a trunk the rich brown of
8.  Ukraine 's revival is nipped right in the        bud       , and Luca Toni has finally got his first
9.  destroys friendships . "While the                budding   singer 's self-titled CD features a cover
10. and serious ." Good job in there ,               bud       , " James said to Slash ." You handled
11. about him and the plum tree was blooming ,       buds      of white and lavender and pink sprawling
12. day watching ESPN with a beer gut and a          Bud       Lite at age 40 . But even for an apathetic
13. dary buds ; and development of coenosteum .      Budding   in the " axial " group is infrequent and
14. philosophy , and it needs nipping in the         bud       .Joe Kaplinsky Down with catastrophism
15. Of coarse all the credit goes to her best        bud       Lacey Green who was her lifelong inspiration
16. " You just keep telling yourself that ,          Bud       , " Cally commented sarcastically before
17. 's just taller and in addition there are         buds      on the tree . The Mongolia tree seems to
18. winged with densely branched and freshly         budded    blueberry bushes , forms a private niche
19. table see a number of lavender-tinted            buds      on the plant , seemingly ready to burst
20. from a second ? " she held up the wilted         bud       and crushed it in her palm , scattering
21. her gentle attack on him , a smile slowly        budded    on his face before he nodded his head .
22. nipping [ anti-social behaviour ] in the         bud       , before these kids start getting Asbos First  
23. vascular cambiums. For successful chip           budding   , you must have :Figure 1 . Chip
24. ked out a rusty A , but it still made it .       Bud       , the drummer , and Diesel looked my way
25. stood up and looked down . " Your short ,        bud       ! And I do n't think there 's much TO look
26. Middle Eastern . It is a vigorous vine that      buds      conveniently late for regions prone to
27. ipped what looked a promising attack in the      bud       .A lull . " Good God , " blasphemes
28. lationship was what it was . A beginning of      budding   , a lesson to be learnt and of course ,
29. , crouching over his body . " Wake up ,          bud       , " his brown eyes flickered open and focused
30. rose from the ground , glinting with new         buds      in the light of the thousands of stars
31. $ 40 - 60m for an official sponsorship .         Bud       is cheerfully exploiting the popular image
32. n't crying yet , but you could see tears         budding   in his still dangerously angry and hurt
33. ornate crown that was there . Gold lotus         buds      connected little lotus flowers , and went
34. time was right . " Brian replied . " Sorry       bud       , but only one of us is leaving this hut
35. . It looked like some seed that had just         budded    . All along the pod were wooded catwalks
36. did n't see any way a relationship could         bud       between those two Perhaps there
37. ended with the recent arrests . For              budding   suicide bombers all roads seem to lead
38. - you 've got three minutes before some          budding   romance takes you as a sign to get busy
39. myriad civilisations before them , both the      budding   and the wised and prosperous , had long
40. with Espresso Tales . An inspiration to          budding   writers everywhere after taking up writing
41. sitting there were you and one of Brad 's '      buds      ' , Craig . " Hi , " you said to him giving
42. Branches and plants without flowers had          buds      that looked ready to burst at any time
43. down at the corpse and frowned . " Sorry ,       bud       . "But there was n't anything more
44. viticultural practices Vines are grafted or      budded    to take advantage of the desirable properties
45. culture in hot , dry , windy vineyards . It      buds      early , can be prone to coulure and , in
46. the bartender smiled at me ." Hey                bud       , that your dog ? " he asked me and I looked
47. ame time in the games . That is no help to       budding   tactical masters . Gordon Ross of Leeds
48. an undisputed gold medallist . Good job          bud       , you managed to destroy an old man - well
49. lobbying for a promotion , then he was best      buds      with everyone . Why ? Dunno . My assumption
50. .Besides being a platform for             budding   filmmakers , promises to be
51. ." Is my son all right ? " Marion                budded    in , pushing her way to the front of the
52. who will have to display their skills as a       budding   politician , will be quizzed by Brocklebank
53. Coby to Ty to the coffee table where two         Bud       Lite bottles sat , " You guys were drinking
54. , and attracted him like the sun drew a          budding   wildflower , but he could n't understand
55. away from River , he felt a devious smile        bud       on his face ." More than ever ,
56. atrick was sketching his grandpa , he was a      budding   artist and exceptionally good at it . Leah
57. are three guys , three girls , and three         budding   romances in one dorm ?Long red hair
58. son was almost murdered ? " Another woman        budded    in , pushing her way in front of the group
59. k blue . And of course he had his ear            buds      in . A few days ago I almost told him that
60. in spring .' Irish Dusk ' : salmon               buds      open clear rose pink November to May .
61. Depth of planting - Modern hybrid roses are      budded    on special rootstocks . The point where
62. the first thing , it seemed all her taste        buds      had been burned off at birth because she
63. " She counters . " Keeping the taste             buds      satisfied . "My mouth twists . I
64. said , " No worries you still have your          buds      Gia . " " Best Friends ! " yelled
65. and Being Bored . He agrees that too many        budding   film-makers feel unnecessarily constrained
66. briefly before turning to Austin . " Hey ,       bud       . "Lightning crackled behind Austin
67. within I could see tupelo and buckthorn          budding   ,Within each of the book 's sections
68. . Inspired by television shows in which          budding   developers reap large financial rewards
69. at the idea of keeping her and Isaiah 's         budding   relationship a secret . They had finally
70. cried . And he drank another bottle of that      bud       light he owned so much of , and these were
71. the giant trees were offering their new          buds      up to the sun as sacrifice in the warm
72. igned the classmates into two 's . Jake was      budded    up with Mustard , the teachers son . They
73. window of her new bedroom , pathetic tears       budded    in her eyes . " Oh c'mon , Riv . It can't
74. tous whisky tastings , which should get any      budding   bard 's inspiration flowing . ¢ Gaiety
75. Power 106 radio this morning . The               budding   rapper did say he spends his days recording
76. bring up Liz again tonight , all right ,         bud       ? For me , please ? I do n't have a lot
77.  " How you say in America , we bud , we          bud       . " " Buddies , " Jaden asked . "
78. That was because the tree outside was just       budding.  The light washed over the white clean walls
79.  As the drop sank through , a violet             bud       appeared . It grew amazingly fast , producing
80. into one of the left 's hopes to nip in the      bud       the presidential bid of that famous right-wing
81. blue ) and ' Indian Summer ' rudbeckia are       budded    for late-March bloom . White and
82. cuts through the cellophane and snips a          bud       . I take it from her and tuck it into the
83. ment there was waitressing . She missed her      buds      at the university , Leah , Nicole , Olivia
84. large numbers of 1a proteins form partially      budded    spherules containing the viral RNA and
85. frost . On the other hand , trees in which       bud       set occurs too early in the fall , or bud
86. with lights-out at 9.30PM . With a               budding   music career , a new show called ' The
87. Livingroom ." You have to stay here ,            bud       , she said .  You can't go to gramma
88. found an affinity through kindred taste          buds      and a love of cheap shell-suit clothing
89. her to wait for a minute ." Jace ,               bud       , Rasha wants to talk to you , but you
90. with myosin heads , like a head of corn          budding   from a sheaf .Penetrating between
91. Anna went on , " It was wrong for me to          bud       into your business . " " No it was
92. front of them . The canyon stood out , with      buds      of plant life curled against it 's mouth
93. a-size plasma screen are enough to keep any      budding   Mrs Beckham happy . With a penthouse
94. ion fruit ) , Eucalyptus pachyphylla ( red       budded    mallee ) and Acacia kempeana ( witchetty
95. Somehow , when Lily and Mae exercise their       budding   maternal instincts and carefully feed me
96. outspread and a branch with a flowering          bud       grasped in its beak .Soon they are
97. Magnolias are also often propagated by chip      budding   method which is also used for roses .Magnolias
98. though not too wet , so that the plants can      bud       and produce the tiny flowers that will
99. ment tool for film schools : show it to any      budding   Scorseses and if they can't spot more than
100. third grade . They were always the best of      buds      , but secretly since grade six Melanie
101. owdy substitute for Gwennie , beautiful and     budding   . Hector sauntered to the table for his
102. this presidential campaign nonsense in the      bud       pretty damn quick . Jack was still
103. brochure call 0141 - 204 7975 For               budding   composers , the prospect of having two
104. I 'd like to make a speech ,  my best           bud       Micro Spencer , Mike for short , stood
105. in ! " " Should we catnip it in the             bud       ? " " And say he was cat in the act
106.  " I think the only tip I could give to         budding   authors is to be true to oneself , " first
107. see how the land has embraced you and           budded    since your arrival . A once barren land
108. seen arguments that say aphids and fish can     bud       and fertilize things themselves from their
109. the stairs , I see most of Danny 's soccer      buds      surrounding the card table ; it looks like
110. Beach clubs alone . Last night the              budding   rapper was out on the town once again ,
111. Wednesday 's event , has seen the number of     budding   tycoons rise from 650 two years ago to
112.  Rough winds do shake the darling               buds      of may and summers lease hath all to short
113. nsects . The sun itself blurted its beams .     Budding   leaves were twitching pennants and the
114. enough , by November it was covered in tiny     buds      ready to swell and burst the following
115. I strode over to him and jerked the ear         bud       our of his left ear . " Will you
116. interior designer , fashion designer and        budding   choreographer . Serena is a fashion designer
117. three branches : and it was as though it        budded    , and her blossoms shot forth ; and the
118. spare strand behind one , exposing the ear      bud       of an iPod . My name is Lila Duncan . I
119. need to be . " Yeah , yeah . Keep trying ,      bud       . KT marches to a different beat
120. ecades . One effect is that flowers are now     budding   19 days earlier as spring moves forwards
121. 's how they meet . And they 've been best       buds      ever since . And Maria . Maria is
122. ground . " Watch where you 're goin ' ,         bud       , " came a voice from above me . I laid
123. order . Thus the seeds were sown for her        budding   ambitions to become a songwriter in her
124. pot that had manna , and Aaron 's rod that      budded    , and the tables of the covenant ; And
125. soil , yet at the scent of water it will        bud       and put out branches like a young plant
126. while the youngest begins to explore his        budding   sexuality . The film has won accolades
127. or in aisle 12 looking for a six pack of        Bud       . ' American Idol ' frontrunner Taylor
128. as the gang to which she belonged , the         budding   romance between Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner
129. ccess , the young authors had some tips for     budding   writers ." It is the way you work
130. not like they have highly evolved taste         buds      or anything . We did much of our
131. from her to hide the smile that began to        bud       on his face . After being married to him
132. decided to dedicate this chapter to my best     bud       Mandy ( Andy ) and my good friend Leigh
133. put a few drops of antiseptic on a cotton       bud       and dabbed each of the cuts . There were
134. the small granules were formed in vesicles      budded    off from outgrowths of the A-type granule-containing
135. nther removal from Nigella hispanica flower     buds      reduced filament elongation to 60 % of
136. for Scotland 's shy entrepreneurs               Budding   technology tycoons are not as confident
137. flowers ahead to find Stem of lotus ,           bud       of rose In the hidden garden grows
138. elebrity cutting off young novelists in the     bud       ? They say that every one of us has
139. in all but name , which has churned out         budding   Baggy Caps aplenty . There he was coached
140. in the spring , better than the previous        bud       . Despite the differences , it is the same
141. ativity of the mind . My life was that of a     budding   success story waiting to take bloom . Nobody
142. a dog , hear better too and their taste         buds      were more heightened also . ' While
143. this time , to help nip the nibbling in the     bud       I put the Stop N Gro away and went along
144. to showcase their talent . Otherwise the        budding   filmmakers would have had to carry their
145. worst enemy since diapers . Will her best       bud       Davis Lazzaro , the cute , comic-relief
146. Purves & Purves and pick up the Duo Vase        Bud       , £ 35 , a simple and contemporary acrylic
147. not bloom unless the ants peeled away the       bud       , so he kept an eye on the ants on his
148. ists that it remains just as difficult for      budding   gay politicians to be elected as it ever
149. ying some of the conversation . " Hey           bud       , " a smaller man about my height said
150. pavilion of apple and cherry trees , their      buds      just beginning to blossom , and the street
151. iness Trust to provide a stepping stone for     budding   tycoons . It looks like it is all coming
152. oing to do that . I 'm with you all the way     bud       . Nothing is going to stop us . " C Bar
153. . " " How you say in America , we               bud       , we bud . " " Buddies , " Jaden
154. her gentle attack on him , a smile slowly       budded    on his face before he nodded his head .
155. chelle . " You 're going to need it ,           bud       , " said Jim . " All right , enough
156. intruded on the summertime romance that had     budded    between him and our dear Maria . Christmas
157. and rhubarb syrup , the flame-like scarlet      buds      open when dropped into a drink , lending
158. mally did , just beautiful , like a flower      bud       in spring or a lazily drifting leaf in

Depending on the publisher's budget and the requirements of the dictionary you're working on, the data above could provide fodder for anywhere from 10 minutes' to half a day's work: it all depends on what the job is. If all you've got to do is make sure that the dictionary you're editing adequately treats all the uses of "bud," looking over a few dozen representative citations is probably adequate. At the other end of the spectrum, if you're writing entries from scratch (which is of course the most fun), you've got your work cut out for you: determine how many parts of speech are represented; decide how many senses need to be defined for each part of speech; draft the definitions; locate typical examples where they are needed.

All of the citations in the sample above are from relatively contemporary language. Two things of interest that might not be obvious if you simply thought about the word bud are:

  1. the relatively high frequency of "bud" as a clipping of "buddy"
  2. the use of "bud" as a clipping of Budweiser (a trend that the manufacturer is certainly aware of: they have also trademarked the short form, with reference to beer).
The compound taste bud shows up, but would of course have its own dictionary entry. Also worth noting, and probably worthy of an entry of its own in a complete dictionary, is ear bud, a contraption that most dictionaries in print today haven't caught up with.

A feature of language that is extremely important for learner's dictionaries (that is, English dictionaries written specifically for speakers of other languages) is collocation: the companion words that are typically found with any given word. When examples are given in learner's dictionaries there is always an attempt to illustrate a word with its most frequent collocates, so that the examples presented to dictionary users are the most useful. Using a much larger sample of language, and the tools that are built into most corpus software, it is fairly easy to generate a list of a word's most frequent and most typical companions, or collocates. This leads the lexicographer not only to suitable examples, but to the identification of idioms. The verb nip, for example, collocates frequently with noun bud for obvious reasons: the frequent idiomatic expression "nip it in the bud." In most dictionaries, this sort of idiom merits an entry and definition of its own, rather than just being noted as an example.

The sample sentences above reveal another phenomenon that a good dictionary would take note of, and therefore that a good lexicographer would pick up on: bud is relatively infrequent in progressive tenses (e.g., is budding, has been budding), but the participial and gerundive form budding is fairly common. Common enough, in fact, that the adjective deserves a separate dictionary entry, with a definition along the lines of "starting to develop." A quick push of a few buttons reveals that the things most likely to be budding these days are, in descending order: entrepreneur, romance, artist, star, filmmaker, writer.

Corpora are also good for spotting typical mistakes that people make in writing, and point up why editing is a Good Thing: the writers of lines 51 and 91 above, for example, seem to thing that the verb butt (as in butt in) is spelled bud.

Anyway, you get the picture. Spend your days, weeks, and months doing work like this and you can see that a conference might be a welcome distraction. We're counting down the days!

The website of the Dictionary Society of North America (new members always welcome!) is at

The blog of the 2007 DSNA conference, which gives you a flavor of what's hot and what's not in lexicography these days, is at

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Language Lounge.

Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Friday June 1st 2007, 5:54 AM
Comment by: Karl S.
"Corpora are also good for spotting typical mistakes that people make in writing, and point up why editing is a Good Thing: the writers of lines 51 and 91 above, for example, seem to thing that the verb butt (as in butt in) is spelled bud."

Your use of the verb "to thing" in this context really is priceless.
Friday June 1st 2007, 7:13 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Well, if I could say I did it on purpose I suppose I could take credit for wit, but no such luck. Perhaps my fearless editor at the VT will be kind enough to put it right!
Friday June 1st 2007, 10:11 AM
Comment by: Paula E.
Anybody interested in the history of lexicography should read "The Professor and the Madman" by Simon Winchester. It's a fascinating personal tale that also happens to provide insight into how the Oxford English Dictionary was made.
Friday June 1st 2007, 10:26 AM
Comment by: Frances M.
is it possible to email articles from this site?
Friday June 1st 2007, 10:30 AM
Comment by: Heidi T.
Thanks for the interesting and article! How many examples of a new use of a given word or an entirely new word do you need to find before including it in a dictionary?
Friday June 1st 2007, 10:52 AM
Comment by: Frances M.
I found it. Hey, it's early in California.
Friday June 1st 2007, 6:07 PM
Comment by: Saul G. (Winthrop, MA)
The third line of the first paragraph begins with "This can all mean only one thing..." My aging memory of things syntactic and/or grammatical suggests to me that it ought to read "This can all mean one thing only..." I stand by to stand corrected (or not).
Saturday June 2nd 2007, 11:16 PM
Comment by: E. Mike S.
My middle schoolers here in rural northeast Wisconsin don't say "bud in" for "butt in" front of someone, but "budge in." I'm not sure where that comes from since most wouldn't budge an inch if someone tried to butt in front of them in the lunch line. But the smaller fry sometimes complain, "Mr. Seybert, he budged in front of me."
Thursday August 9th 2007, 9:59 AM
Comment by: Leigh B.
Stop complaining. Try spending "your days, weeks, and months" translating, from confused Swedish into English, operating instructions for drill rigs. Before long, even a visit to the dentist for root canal treatment becomes convivial. And at least you can see the drill!
Thursday August 9th 2007, 10:13 AM
Comment by: Leigh B.
By the way, I think you can take credit for wit anyway.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.