Limits of Subjectivity

Editor’s note: this article was originally published on the blog Old School Script. We have taken over its archives and are slowly republishing pieces that have continuing importance and value. This article was originally published November 8th, 2016. We continue to appreciate Kris Lyle’s willingness to share his writing with our readers here at

By the nature of the work they do, lexicographers are applied linguists. Yet many people working in the field have no formal training in linguistics. Does this matter? Our experience as editorial managers suggests that good lexicographers operate to a large extent on the basis of instinct, sound judgment, and accumulated expertise.

— Atkins & Rundell (2008:130)

This is a refreshingly straightforward and honest answer from two leading lexicographers about how they navigate the murky waters of semantics.

The three primary traits they claim to rely on most — instinct, sound judgment, and accumulated expertise — sound like respectable cards to have up one’s sleeve. And yet, if you’re interested in challenging the decisions of a lexicographer, on what grounds can this be done?

After all, instinct, sound judgment, and accumulated expertise all boil down to subjective exercises.

This is not to say critical thinking wasn’t a part of that process, but that the process of deciding X means Y is a transient current of self-reflection.

[M]eanings and dictionary senses aren’t the same thing at all. Meanings exist in infinite numbers of discrete communicative events, while the senses in a dictionary represent lexicographers’ attempts to impose some order on this babel.

— Atkins & Rundell (2008:311)

For day to day queries, the results of this type of work produces a helpful tool for using language (e.g., a dictionary). But if you’re actually interested in going behind the scenes and understanding how and what words mean, these subjective methods will increasingly become less useful and more untenable.

When you move into the theory of meaning you’re no longer dealing with lexicography but the backend of that production process — lexicology. And in this world, instinct and expert opinions won’t cut it (which becomes all the more apparent with ancient languages). Simply put: more objective methods are required. Ones that make their steps of analysis visible and testable.

This narrow path is unquestionably more difficult to travel, and perhaps even more so to find. If this topic interests you, look out for the next post where I introduce a potential way forward.

Further reading…

Atkins, B.T. Sue & M. Rundell (2008). The Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Stefanowitsch, A. (2010). Empirical cognitive semantics: Some thoughts. In D. Glynn, & K. Fischer (Eds.), Quantitative Cognitive Semantics: Corpus-driven approaches (pp. 355–380). Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.