Off the Beaten Career Path

Very Much at Home In a World of Words

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Erin McKean, 34, has wanted to be a lexicographer since she was 8 years old -- long before most of us even figure out what the word means.

Lexicographers create dictionaries. It involves more than just writing entries for specific words. For every word that makes the final cut, there are countless hours of research and discussion behind it. "The print product is just the tip of the iceberg," she said.

It's a small, competitive field, and the career path is largely self-directed. There are no specific degree programs in the United States for lexicographers. "The only real way to become one is to find a place to apprentice," McKean said.

For her, it really did start when she was just a girl. "I read everything that came into the house -- cereal boxes, my mother's library books," she said. She also read her father's Wall Street Journal, which is where she learned about lexicography as a career field.

McKean, who is editor in chief of American dictionaries at Oxford University Press, followed up on that early interest with bachelor's and master's degrees in linguistics from the University of Chicago and with key internships.

To do well in the field, you need "a fairly obsessive interest" in words, she said, but not one driven by a need to improve people's grammar and usage. Lexicographers are concerned with tracking the language, not controlling it. "We're not the crossing guards of the English language."

-- Mary Ellen Slayter


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