Interview with a Lexicographer

Julie Moore is a freelance lexicographer based in the UK. After an early career as an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teacher, working in Greece and the Czech Republic, she became involved in ELT (English Language Teaching) publishing, and much of her work has been in the area of ELT dictionaries. She has written for various ELT projects, as well as editing and reviewing ELT material, and she also teaches part-time EAP (English for Academic Purposes) courses at a University.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself

I live in Bristol in South West England.  I work from home in a little mezzanine office at the top of the house.

Please tell us about your job

I have a bit of a “portfolio career” – I work on all kinds of English Language Teaching (ELT) materials; dictionaries, vocabulary books, coursebooks. I wear a variety of different hats; lexicographer, writer, editor and corpus researcher, oh yes, and occasional teacher at Bristol University.

For how long and what made you become freelance?

Yes, I’ve been freelance since 2000.  My initial decision to go it alone was prompted by health issues. I suffer from fairly severe RSI [Repetitive Strain Injury] which makes it difficult to be sat at a desk 9-5.  As a freelancer, I can organise my working day so I work in short bursts (60-90 mins) and take lots of breaks.  I also have more control over my work set-up – special mouse, voice recognition software, etc.

Who do you work for?

I work for all the major ELT publishers (CUP, OUP, Macmillan, Collins, etc.).

How did you become a lexicographer, and how long have you been one for?

After several years as an EFL teacher, I realised I loved explaining language, especially vocabulary, but didn’t much like the teaching lifestyle.  So I did an MA in Special Applications of Linguistics at the University of Birmingham and as part of that I specialised in corpus linguistics and lexicography.  When I completed my Masters in 1998, I was lucky enough to get a job as an in-house lexicographer at Cambridge University Press, working on their, then new, Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary.

What are the advantages and disadvantages linked to your job?

Freelancing advantage: The biggest advantage to being a freelancer is the flexibility it gives you, both in terms of the way you work and the variety of projects you can take on.

Lexicography advantage: What’s not to like about “playing with words” all day?!

Freelancing disadvantage: One of the downsides is trying to keep a steady flow of work, it inevitably comes in peaks and troughs.  For me, the busy patches can be a struggle physically and of course, when things get quiet, you always worry, even though after 12 years freelancing, I know that something else is always going to come along. Lexicography projects are actually quite good for workflow compared to other writing, because they usually provide nice regular hours often over a period of months.

Lexicography disadvantage: I’ve been moving away from pure lexicography a bit in recent years partly because it’s become more automated and the software used to compile dictionaries has become much less RSI-friendly. You used to do a variety of different actions (paging up and down to read corpus lines, scribbling handwritten notes, typing in definitions and examples), now it’s all about ticking boxes and it’s got very mouse-heavy.

Can you describe a typical day?

Because of my health, I have to be quite disciplined about my working hours.  I get up at 8 and I’m usually at my desk by about 9. I spend a bit of time checking emails … and Facebook and Twitter! Then I usually do a couple of hours’ work in the morning. I often go for a swim at the local pool late morning, to relax and stretch out. Afternoons usually involve two working stints of 1-2 hours each with a break mid-afternoon to nip round to the shops or, in the summer, do a bit of gardening on my tiny roof terrace.

Are you part of an association or group of lexicographers? 

No, but I am a member of IATEFL (association for teachers of English).

Any advice to give to someone who’d like to become a lexicographer (or just a freelancer)?

Sadly, I think it’s more difficult to get into ELT lexicography nowadays because most of the big dictionary publishers only employ a handful of in-house editors, then use freelance lexicographers. I don’t think you’d get the kind of in-house job and valuable training I benefited from now.

On freelancing more generally, my top tip would be networking and lots of it. Most of my work has come through contacts.  I find conferences and other events are great opportunities to meet the people who matter (the ones who work for publishers!).  You don’t have to do a hard sell, just talking about what you’re interested in and sounding enthusiastic about your work goes a long way.  If you end a conversation by giving out a business card, you never know what might come of it.

Do you have a preferred moment of the day?

I think I’m most productive in the morning, but I really enjoy my mid-afternoon cup of tea, especially in the summer when I can enjoy it out on my roof terrace.

Do you use social media much? For work or pleasure?

I’ve been on Facebook for a few years, but it’s only in the past year that I’ve started using it for work. From a work perspective, it’s definitely expanded that all-important network of contacts and has even led directly to some concrete work. I started using Twitter this year, purely for work. After an initial flurry, I’m now checking it a bit less frequently, but I still think it’s a useful way of keeping in touch with the latest trends and ideas in ELT.

What is your favourite word?

If I had to pick one, I guess it would be “soporific”.  I came across it as a young child reading Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies”.  I loved the feel of it in my mouth and I think, perhaps, it marked the start of my love affair with words. I also have a bit of a penchant for words beginning “squ …”.

What is your least favourite word?

I generally try very hard not to be a language pedant.  I can’t help but notice language ‘errors’ when I see them, but I try not to take a ‘moral’ stand unless it’s in a context where someone should really  know better. One thing that bugs me every time though is the incorrect usage of ‘everyday’ instead of ‘every day’.

As a lexicographer, do you have to know lots of words?

When I tell people what I do, this is one of the most common reactions (along with comments about being good at Scrabble!), but in fact, although I like language, I wouldn’t say I have a particularly wide vocabulary.  Most learner’s dictionaries focus on the most frequent words in the language anyway and when I’ve worked on higher level and native-speaker dictionaries, you always use corpus data. Thankfully, lexicographers don’t just make up what goes in the dictionary!
Other people come up with language questions they want settled.  I often find myself explaining that modern lexicography is descriptive rather than prescriptive – we just describe language as it’s currently used, we don’t make judgements about what’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

Thank you Julie! For more about Julie visit You can follow her on Twitter at @lexicojules.