11 Secrets of Volcanologists

United Nations Photo, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Image cropped.
United Nations Photo, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Image cropped.

Around the world, over 600 million people live near one of 1500 active terrestrial volcanoes. Who's keeping them safe from potential future eruptions? The women and men who study these gas-and-ash-and-lava belching windows into the center of the earth: volcanologists.

You might not be sure what volcanologists do or why they matter—especially if you live thousands of miles away from one of these fiery mountains. So, Mental Floss went searching for answers from four volcanologists working in various capacities around the country, who shared their experiences in the field, under the ocean, and gazing far out into space.

1. THEY STUDY EVERYTHING FROM MAGMA COMPOSITION TO VOLCANIC GASSES AND BEYOND.

A volcanologist takes gas emission measurements during an assessment mission inside the crater at Mount Nyamulagira
United Nations Photo, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

"When I tell people what I do, 95 percent of the time they ask, 'What is that?'" says Arianna Soldati of the University of Missouri, who researches lava flows.

Volcanology is the study of how volcanoes form, what they're made of, and what they eject, among other areas of research. Many volcanologists have degrees in geology; some, like Soldati, are physical geologists, collecting samples on site and then analyzing them to figure out their composition. Others are geophysicists who study tectonic plates and their role in volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Geochemists and petrologists study volcanic gasses and minerals, and geodesists look at deformations on and around volcanoes to figure out if magma is pooling up underneath them. All these disparate disciplines work together, Soldati says, to "understand how the planet works, so we can understand how eruptions work."

2. THEY WORK WITH OTHER VOLCANOLOGISTS AROUND THE GLOBE IN THE NAME OF SAFETY.

Jacob Lowenstern is Chief of the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program at the United States Geological Survey (USGS), a government agency that monitors our country's 169 active land volcanoes, largely via observatories in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, and Oregon. But it also offers assistance and training to volcanologists in other countries because, as Lowenstern points out, an active volcano system respects no human borders. The program helps keep people and animals safe from the destruction wrought by lava flows, mudslides, and gas: When eruptions happen, localities issue alerts based on data from USGS.

Underwater volcanoes can create shipping hazards, like floating chunks of pumice, but a land-based volcano can create serious chaos worldwide. When Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010, its miles-high ash cloud grounded aircraft to and from Europe and Britain for about a week. "We didn't even know what concentration of ash it was safe to fly through, because no one had studied it before," Soldati says. (They do know now, although the answer depends on how long the aircraft is aloft [PDF]). Back when Tambora erupted in Indonesia in 1815, it kicked off the Year Without a Summer, as ash circled the globe and blocked out the Sun, resulting in crop failures, famine, and a total of 100,000 human deaths. "At some point, something truly global [like that] is going to happen again," Lowenstern says. Volcanologists aim to be prepared.

3. SOME OF THEM WORK UNDERWATER ...

An estimated 80 percent of eruptions happen beneath the oceans' waves. It hasn't been easy for volcanologists to research them—for starters, there was no comprehensive map of the ocean floor until just a few years ago. And not being able to see a volcano that's 3000 feet underwater makes observation … challenging. Historically, scientists mostly monitored underwater volcano activity using fickle, battery-operated equipment installed on the seafloor, which could only store (rather than transmit) data. The first complete footage of an underwater eruption wasn't captured till 2009.

William Wilcock says technology has finally caught up to the thirst for information. He studies the Pacific Ocean's Axial Seamount—the most active volcano in the Northeast Pacific—via the Cabled Array ocean observatory, 550 miles of fiber-optic cable equipped with sensors that allow scientists to to monitor the Juan de Fuca ridge off of Oregon's coast. Using the array, they can monitor the chemicals and temperature in the water column, measure the volcano's magma chamber, and keep tabs on earthquakes, which could signify an eruption.

The array sends underwater volcanologists data in real time—fast enough that they can sometimes deploy autonomous vehicles for a closer look at eruptions as they happen. In April 2015, the project's team was able to witness an entire eruption of Axial Seamount from start to finish, leading to “the most detailed observations ever made” of an undersea volcano, as Wilcock told The Washington Post. The data they gleaned helped them understand how the seamount's caldera falls during eruptions and then reinflates with gases and magma before reaching a particular threshold, at which it erupts. Understanding how that inflation works is important for land volcanoes too, which is part of why data from the array is posted on the internet for scientists around the world to use.

4. ... AND SOME STUDY VOLCANOES IN SPACE.

The cloud-covered Mayon volcano spews ash as it erupts near the Philippines
ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

The only scientist NASA sent to the moon was geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, who flew on Apollo 17. (All of the other astronauts were military men-turned-NASA test pilots.) Schmitt—who was actually allergic to regolith, a.k.a. moon dust—helped prove that the moon was once volcanically active. This fact makes NASA's Alex Sehlke incredibly proud—and envious. He's a volcanologist who conducts research in Idaho's Craters of the Moon National Monument in preparation for the agency's planned return there in a few years. Craters of the Moon is geologically similar to our actual moon, in part because it was formed by lava erupting from the middle of the continent, not a juncture where two plates meet; moon volcanos were likely formed in a similar fashion, since the moon is covered, basically, by a single giant plate.

Volcanologists like Sehlke usually play supporting roles in space exploration. They test equipment and speculate about how, say, Craters of the Moon's lava tubes are like those under the surface of the actual moon and might make for a good base of operations. "Imagine looking at the surface of the moon [from Earth] when you're planning a mission and saying, ‘Hmm, looks alright,'" Sehlke says. "But there are questions we need to answer before we go—maybe the terrain is treacherous."

They may also offer guidance from mission control to astronauts (often about areas that look like they might be interesting to explore), and analyze data from probes—like the first images of an ice volcano erupting on Saturn's moon Enceladus, captured by the Cassini spacecraft in 2005.

5. SOME OF THEM ARE LOOKING FOR THE BEGINNINGS OF LIFE.

Sulfide chimneys at the Urashima vent site in the Pacific
NOAA Ocean Exploration & Research, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Hydrothermal vents—openings in the seafloor where water enters, becomes heated, then spurts back out—support a lot of weird microbes that Wilcock says may be similar to the first organisms that ever existed on our planet. Studying them and the conditions that created them may help us understand how to look for life on other planets and moons—one of NASA's primary objectives. But Sehlke and others are also looking for life by scanning data from probes exploring our solar system: "Wherever volcanoes sit, on Enceladus or elsewhere, there is heat or fluids that maybe provide the necessary environment for microorganisms like the ones we know on Earth," Sehlke says. Volcanoes like these "give us the highest chance of finding life" out in space.

6. THEY ALSO WANT TO UNDERSTAND HOW TO SUSTAIN THE LIFE WE ALREADY HAVE.

While volcanoes created Earth's original atmosphere by emitting the carbon dioxide and nitrogen necessary for life, other volcanic gasses, like sulfur dioxide, increase the ability of our current atmosphere to retain heat [PDF]. "Learning how these things balance out is hugely important to understanding our future" on the planet, Soldati says. That's why new studies are looking at the links between volcanic activity and climate change, and how they may exacerbate each other.

Some volcanologists are particularly concerned about Iceland, where melting ice caps may be releasing pressure on magma chambers, contributing to more—and more explosive—volcanic eruptions in the future. The effect of the reduced pressure is similar to how “the cork of a champagne bottle flies into the air when it has loosened sufficiently,” geophysicist Magnus Guðmundsson told Hakai magazine. Another new study urged those making models of our climate future to include volcanic eruptions as a variable, which they find are under-sampled in such models but can have big effects on temperatures, sea levels, global radiation, and ocean circulation, among other key elements of the climate.

7. THEY GET TO USE A LOT OF COOL EQUIPMENT ...

A volcanologist examines seismic charts
Ulet Ifansasti, Getty Images

Volcanologists use a lot of very high-tech equipment in their line of work. Seismometers measure earthquakes on volcanic slopes. Infrared cameras measure the heat of lava flows. Correlation spectrometers measure the amount of sulfur dioxide in the air, which is released when magma is rising to the surface (and so can signal when a volcano might be ready to erupt). Tiltmeters measure, literally, the tilt of the land around a volcano. If instruments like these, having been mounted on a volcano, fall apart during an eruption, "we sometimes use helicopter drops to put new equipment on the ground," Lowenstern says. More and more, though, volcanologists monitoring land volcanoes rely on equipment mounted on aerial or space-based unmanned craft, "so we don't put people in harm's way." This includes technology called InSAR (Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar), which, from a satellite in space, can measure a volcano stretching and contracting. That helps scientists keep tabs on just what the magma inside a volcano is doing—and whether it's about to come up.

8. ... BUT ONE OF A VOLCANOLOGIST'S MOST IMPORTANT TOOLS IS A ROCK HAMMER.

Out in the field, Soldati says, her most important tools are her notebook, for jotting observations, and her steel rock hammer, which she uses both to chip away at rock and to gather samples of molten lava. To grab a sample, she swings into the lava with the pointed end of the hammer, then drops the molten material—which is around 2000°F—into a pail of water; quickly cooling the lava in this way turns it to glass (slow cool it, and it becomes rock), which she transports back to the lab.

Once there, Soldati relies on machines like a concentric cylinder viscometer, which melts lava samples so she can measure their viscosity—which tells her how explosive a volcano's eruptions are. Less viscous lava trickles out of a volcano, while more viscous, and hence more explosive, lava can blow out the whole side of a mountain, sending burning lava, rocks, and other debris flying.

9. IT DOESN'T LOOK LIKE THE MOVIES.

Volcanologist suit

One thing field volcanologists almost never use: those clichéd silver flame-proof proximity suits. "They're heavy, and since you usually have to walk hours to get to your field site, no one wants to carry all that weight," Soldati says. Besides, "heat is almost never the hazard that matters in the situations in which we work," writes Aaron Curtis, a volcanologist working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (You have a greater chance of "being hit by ballistics, or getting gassed," he notes.) "The reason you see those suits so often is that they look really cool on TV."

So what do they wear? Jessica Ball, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the U.S. Geological Survey, writes that "sturdy boots, hard hats, work gloves, rip-resistant clothing with long sleeves, and sunglasses or safety goggles are pretty standard, and I will add a gas mask if I’m going to be in an area with lots of fumes. Also, sunscreen is always important, because I’m often out in the sun all day."

10. SOME OF THEIR WORK IS DANGEROUS IN UNEXPECTED WAYS.

Lava and flying debris aren’t the only hazards during fieldwork. Tina Neal, a volcanologist with the USGS, has reported that she’s had several encounters with bears while working at Ukinrek Maars in Alaska. She also says, "I think the aircraft work of volcanologists is as dangerous if not more so than the active volcanoes we visit and study." Geologist Christina Heliker has described the most fearful moments during her time on staff at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory as being those that involved flying in a helicopter over continuously active Pu`u `O`o. Once, while trying to return to camp after mapping lava flows, “It was almost dark, and we were sandwiched between an incandescent field of `a`a [lava] and this thick layer of clouds that were glowing orange from the reflected light of the lava,” she told an interviewer. “I was plenty relieved when the pilot decided to give it up and fly out to somewhere else.”

11. THEY WANT YOU TO KNOW: VOLCANOES AREN'T ALL BAD.

Volcanologists aren't drawn to their work only because of the destructive power of their research subjects. "[Volcanoes] also have a positive impact on our life," Soldati says. She points out that volcanoes fertilize the soil—some of the most productive crops on our planet are grown in mineral-rich volcanic ash. They also create new land; the Hawaiian volcano Kilauea has added 500 acres to the Big Island since 1983. So don't say volcanoes never give back.

13 Secrets of Halloween Costume Designers

vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images
vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images

For consumers, Halloween may be all about scares, but for businesses, it’s all about profits. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers will spend $8.8 billion this year on spooky goods, including $3.2 billion on costumes. “It’s an opportunity to be something you’re not the other 364 days of the year,” Jonathan Weeks, founder of Costumeish.com, tells Mental Floss. “It feels like anything goes.”

To get a better sense of what goes into those lurid, funny, and occasionally outrageous disguises, we spoke to a number of designers who are constantly trying to react to an evolving seasonal market. Here’s what we learned about what sells, what doesn’t, and why adding a “sexy” adjective to a Halloween costume doesn’t always work.

1. Some Halloween costumes are just too outrageous for retail

For kids, Halloween is a time to look adorable in exchange for candy. For adults, it’s a time to push the envelope. Sometimes that means provocative, revealing costumes; other times, it means going for shock value. “You get looks at a party dressed as an Ebola worker,” Weeks says. “We have pregnant nun costumes, baby cigarette costumes.” The catch: You won’t be finding these at Walmart. “They’re meant for online, not Spencer’s or Party City.”

2. … but there are some lines Halloween costume designers won’t cross.

Although Halloween is the one day of the year people can deploy a dark sense of humor without inviting personal or professional disaster, some costume makers draw their own line when it comes to how far to exceed the boundaries of good taste. “We’ve never done a child pimp costume, but someone else has,” says Robert Berman, co-founder of Rasta Imposta. Weeks says some questionable ideas that have been brought to the discussion table have stayed there. “There’s no toddler KKK costume or baby Nazi costume,” he says. “There is a line.”

3. Designers can produce a Halloween costume in a matter of days.

A lot of costume interest comes from what’s been making headlines in the fall: Costumers have to be ready to meet that demand. “We’re pretty good at being able to react quickly,” says Pilar Quintana, vice-president of merchandising for Yandy.com. “Something happening in April may not be strong enough to stick around for Halloween.”

Because the mail-order site has in-house models and isn’t beholden to approval from big box vendors, Quintana can design and photograph a costume so it’s available within 72 hours. If it's more elaborate, it can take a little longer: Both Yandy and Weeks had costumes inspired by the Cecil the Lion story that broke in July 2015 (in which a trophy hunter from Minnesota killed an African lion) on their sites in a matter of weeks.

4. Beyonce can help move stale inventory.

Extravagant custom tailoring jobs aside, Halloween costumes are a business of instant demand and instant gratification—inventory needs to be plentiful in order to fill the deluge of orders that come in a short frame of time. If a business miscalculates the popularity of a given theme, they might be stuck with overstock until they can find a better idea to hang on it. “[In 2016] we had 400 or 500 Zorro costumes that we couldn’t sell for $10,” Weeks says. “It had a big black hat that came with it, and I thought, ‘That looks familiar.’ It turned out it looked a lot like the one Beyonce wore in her ‘Lemonade’ video.” Remarketed as a "Formation" hat for Beyonce cosplayers, Weeks moved his stock.

5. Women don’t usually wear masks as part of their Halloween costumes.

Curiously, there’s a large gender gap when it comes to the sculpted latex monster masks offered by Halloween vendors: They’re sold almost exclusively to men. “There just aren’t a lot of masks with female characters,” Weeks says. “I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because men in general like gory, scary costumes.” One exception: Hillary Clinton masks, which were all the rage in 2016.

6. Food costumes are always a hit for Halloween.

At Rasta Imposta, Berman says political and pop culture trends can shift their plans, but one theme is a constant: People love to dress up as food. “We’ve had big success with food items. Bananas, pickles. We did an avocado.”

7. Adding ”sexy” to a Halloween costume doesn’t always work.

It’s a recurring joke that some costume makers only need to add a “sexy” adjective to a design concept in order to make it marketable. While there’s some truth to that—Quintana references Yandy’s “sexy poop emoji” costume—it’s no guarantee of success. “We had a concept for ‘sexy cheese’ that was a no-go,” she says. “'Sexy corn’ didn’t really work at all. ‘Sexy anti-fascist’ didn’t make the cut this year.”

8. People ask for some weird stuff when it comes to Halloween costumes.

In addition to monitoring social media for memes and trends, designers can get an idea of what consumers are looking for by shadowing their online searches. Costumeish.com monitors what people are typing into their search bar to see if they’re missing out on a potential hit. “People search for odd things sometimes,” Weeks says. “People want to be a cactus, a palm tree, they’re looking for a priest and a boy costume. People can be weird.”

9. Halloween costume designers have workarounds for big properties.

Go out to a Halloween party over the past few years and you’re almost guaranteed to run into the Queen of the North. But not every costume maker has the official license for Game of Thrones. What are other companies to do? Come up with a design that sparks recognition without sparking a lawsuit. “Our biggest seller right now is Sexy Northern Queen,” Quintana says. “It’s inspired by a TV show.” But she won’t say which one.

10. People love sharks.

From the clunky Ben Cooper plastic costume from 1975’s Jaws to today, people can’t seem to get enough of shark-themed outfits. “We do a lot of sharks,” Berman says. “Maybe it’s because of Shark Week in the summertime, but sharks always tend to trend. People just like the idea of sharks.”

11. Dead celebrities mean sales.

It may be morbid, but it’s a reality: The high-profile passing of celebrities, especially close to Halloween, can trigger a surge in sales. “Before Robin Williams died, I couldn’t sell a Mork costume for a dollar,” Weeks says. “After he died, I couldn’t not sell it for less than $100.”

12. The Halloween costume business profits from people shopping at the last minute.

Ever wonder why food and other novelty costumes tend to outsell traditional garb like pirates and witches? Because costume shopping for adults is usually done frantically and they don’t have time to compare 25 different Redbeards. “People tend to do it at the very last minute, so we want something that pops out at them,” Berman says. “Like, ‘Oh, I want to be a crab.’”

Weeks agrees that procrastination is profitable. “We make a lot of money on shipping,” he says. “Some people get party invites on the 25th and so they’re paying for next-day air.”

13. It’s not actually a seasonal business.

Everyone we spoke to agreed that the most surprising thing about the Halloween business is that it’s not really seasonal on their end. Costumes are designed year-round, and planning can take between 12 and 18 months. “It’s 365 days a year,” Quintana says. “We’ll start thinking about next Halloween in December.”

This piece was first published in 2017 and republished in 2019.

11 Secrets of Lexicographers

Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images
Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images

Merriam-Webster defines a lexicographer as “an author or editor of a dictionary.” The job sounds simple enough, but the work that goes into researching and writing definitions like the one above takes a unique combination of skills. Lexicographers have to be passionate about words without being pretentious, knowledgeable without being overeducated, and analytic enough to treat language like a science while being creative enough to define tricky words like art and love.

To learn more about what goes into being a lexicographer, Mental Floss spoke with a few from the world’s top dictionaries. Here’s what they had to say about where they find new words, what goes into the editing process, and how they really feel about defining literally as “figuratively.”

1. Being a lexicographer doesn't require a specific degree.

There are a number of different paths you can take to get into lexicography. Most people who write and edit dictionaries come from some sort of humanities background, but there’s usually no specific degree or training required to become a lexicographer. Emily Brewster, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster since 2000, double-majored in linguistics and philosophy. She tells Mental Floss, “A lot of people have an English background. There are some editors who have linguistic backgrounds. But really, when your job is defining the vocabulary of the English language, expertise in any field can apply. We have science editors, we have people who are specialists in chemistry, specialists in law, so any kind of expertise can make you a better definer.”

According to Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer who worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and Random House Dictionaries, an education with a focus on lexicography specifically can actually be a turn-off for employers. “There was a university that once offered a degree in lexicography, but no dictionary house would ever hire someone with a degree in lexicography [...] In general, the people who are going to be teaching it that way are probably not experienced practical lexicographers, and the kind of things you need to do the job are rather different than what academics would study if you were studying lexicography.” Students studying lexicography at Université de Lorraine in France, for example, learn about etymology, polysemy (the existence of multiple meanings for one word), and lexicological analysis. A class can provide helpful background on the subject, but it won't necessarily equip learners with the skills and instincts they need to find and define new words.

Too much education, regardless of the subject, can also hurt someone’s chances of working for a dictionary. “In general you want someone with some but not too much training in some kind of general humanities discipline," Sheidlower says. "Not someone with a Ph.D., because people with Ph.D.s tend to think you can spend the rest of your life studying things, and when you’re actually working for a dictionary you have a list of 50 things you have to get done by the end of the week. The fact that one of them or all of them might be super interesting doesn’t mean you can spend three weeks studying the same thing.”

2. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are "proper."

The role of dictionaries is largely misunderstood by the public. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are valid and dictate how they should be used. Rather, they find the words that already exist and do their best to represent how they’re being used in the real world. “This is something non-lexicographers in particular have problems with,” Sheidlower says. “But the role of a dictionary is not to say what is correct in any sort of sense handed down from above. It is to say what is in use in language, and if people are using something different from how it’s used traditionally, that thing is going to go in regardless of whether or not you like it.”

3. Lexicographers know their decisions can create controversy—and not always for the reasons you’d think.

Even if lexicographers don’t think of themselves as linguistic gatekeepers, many people see still them that way. That can cause controversy when a word or definition makes it into the dictionary that people don’t approve of. One recent example is the inclusion of the word they in Merriam-Webster as a non-binary pronoun. “That’s been getting a tremendous amount of attention,” Sheidlower says. But as he explains, the dictionary didn’t make up the usage—it simply acknowledged its existence. “Singular they goes back to the 14th century—even nonbinary they goes back to the 18th century. ... New isn’t necessarily bad, but those things aren’t new.”

Words that fall outside sensitive social and political arenas can also stir outrage. A classic example is defining literally to mean "figuratively." “People hate that, they hate it so much,” Brewster says. “But it’s old, it’s established, and if we didn’t enter it, we’d be saying the word is not used this way, and the word is used this way and it’s been used this way since Charles Dickens. It’s not really our place to make a judgement if a word or a use is a good word. Our job is to report words that are established in the language.”

4. Lexicographers add hundreds of new words to the dictionary each year ...

Language is constantly evolving, which means that a lexicographer’s job never ends. Brewster estimates that roughly 1000 words are added to Merriam-Webster.com each year, including new senses of existing words. The most recent batch consisted of 533 new terms and uses, ranging from highly specific words like non-rhotic (the Bostonian habit of not pronouncing the letter r unless it’s followed by a vowel) to Instagram-friendly slang like vacay.

5. ... But lexicographers also have to be choosy.

More new words enter the lexicon each year than can fit between the covers of even the most comprehensive dictionary. To give readers an up-to-date picture of the English language without overworking themselves, lexicographers have to be selective about which words make the cut. As Brewster explains, every word that goes into the Merriam-Webster dictionary meets certain criteria. “We have to have significant evidence of a word in use over an extended period of time,” she says.

Those standards are a little vague for a reason. Taking the popularity and staying power of a new word into consideration, editors get to decide what counts as “significant evidence” and an “extended period of time” for themselves.

Brewster elaborates, “For example, the verb tweet as in the Twitter sense erupted very suddenly in the language. So that was a case in which very quickly it became clear that our readers were going to be served by having this term be defined. You can contrast that with a term like adorkable, it requires a longer amount of time before it meets that criteria of being in the language for an extended period of time because we don’t want to enter words that nobody’s going to be using in five years.”

6. Lexicographers struggle with words like love.

Lexicography is methodical and scientific work most of the time, but it can get subjective. If you’ve ever had trouble defining a term without using a related word, chances are whoever wrote its entry in the dictionary encountered the same problem. “A term like art or poetry or love, these are notoriously hard to define because their meanings are extremely broad. You can’t pin it down,” Sheidlower says. “The word itch is very hard to define. Trying to define the word itch without using the word scratch is very difficult. I’ll let you think about that one for a moment.” (In case you were wondering, Merriam-Webster defines itch as “an uneasy irritating sensation in the upper surface of the skin usually held to result from mild stimulation of pain receptors.” Pretty spot-on.)

7. Lexicographers rarely argue over words.

If you’re looking to have spirited debates over the value of certain words with your fellow language enthusiasts, lexicography may not be the career for you. Most of the work is done in silence in front of a computer, and conflicts that get more passionate than a politely worded email are rare. “People think we sit around a table and argue about the merits of a word. Or say, ‘Yeah, this word should get in!’ Or ‘Yeah, this word should never get in,’” Brewster says. ”It’s actually very quiet, solitary work. You can make a case for a word, but it’s all in writing. So when I draft a definition for a word, I will say that we have evidence of it dating back as far back as this date, and it’s appeared in all these different types of publications. We’re not very emotional about these things. I think we’re much more biologists than pundits.”

8. Several lexicographers look at each entry.

Putting together a dictionary is collaborative work. According to Brewster, a single word entry must go through several editors before it’s ready for publication. As a definer—what most people think of when they think of a lexicographer—she sets the process in motion. “Being a general definer, my job is to define all the non-technical vocabulary in the language. But that varies really broadly, from economics terms, like a definition for dark money, to pronouns, to prepositions, and also informal terms, like say twerking.”

After she drafts a definition, it also goes through the cross-reference editor (the person who makes sure any other relevant entries are addressed), the pronunciation editor, the etymologist (who traces the word's historical origins), the person who keys it into the system, the copy editor, and the proofreader.

9. Lexicographers promise they aren’t judging the way you speak.

You may assume that someone who makes a living defining words is a stickler for language rules. But lexicographers might understand better than anyone that there’s no one right way to speak English, and the “correct” version of any language is determined by its speakers. “Sometimes when people learn that I work on a dictionary, they worry that I am judging how they write or speak, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Erin McKean, the lexicographer in charge of the online dictionary Wordnik, tells Mental Floss. “I love English, and I love all the different ways to speak and write English. I'm much more likely to ask you to make up a word for me than I am to criticize the words you use!” So if you find yourself in a conversation with a dictionary editor, feel free to use slang and mix up farther and further—you’re in a safe space.

10. Don't ask lexicographers to pick a favorite word.

Lexicographers know more words than the average person, but if you ask them to pick a favorite, they may decline to answer. "You’re not allowed to play favorites," Sheidlower says. "You have to put in words that you dislike, you can’t spend more time researching words that you do like. It’s not personal [...] Just like if you’re a parent, you’re not allowed to say that one child is your favorite, which is generally the metaphor lexicographers will use when they’re asked that question."

11. The internet makes a lexicographer’s job easier.

For most of the job’s history, lexicographers found new words by reading as many books as possible. Reading is still an important part of their work, but thanks to the internet, they have a greater variety of materials to pull from than ever. Emily Brewster mentions Google Books and online corpora—collections of text excerpts from different places, sometimes related to a particular subject—as some of her favorite sources for researching new words and their definitions and origins. But her most reliable resource is a popular social media site. “I really like Twitter in general,” Brewster says. “From Twitter, I get to a huge variety of sources. It’s a really good network for connecting with all kinds of publications.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER