What is Lexicology?

Mary McMahon

Lexicology is the study of the lexis, the library of words which make up a language. A lexis may also be referred to as a vocabulary; in both cases, the term is meant to encompass all of the words used in a language, including variants and archaic forms. People who work in the field of lexicology are known as lexicologists, and are often found working in academia. Several colleges and universities offer opportunities to study lexicology, including the lexicology of foreign languages.

Lexicographers write, edit and compile dictionaries.
Lexicographers write, edit and compile dictionaries.

A number of different areas of interest are combined in lexicology. People who study words are interested in the relationships between various words, the labeling of types of words, the exploration of word groups and their relationships, and the evolutions in word and language use which occur over time. A lexicologist can study regional differences in word use, and also look at the history of words studied, exploring their origins and seeing how their usage has deviated from their original meaning in situations where this is the case.

Lexicologists don't necessarily directly involve themselves in the production of dictionaries.
Lexicologists don't necessarily directly involve themselves in the production of dictionaries.

Linguistics figures heavily in lexicology, and many researchers in this field are also interested in semantics, the examination of meaning. A lexicologist may opt to study the lexis of any language, and can work with a wide variety of materials including original source texts which demonstrate historical word use, dictionaries, and other references. Commonly, knowledge of multiple languages is required to fully delve into word use and origins, especially since many modern languages freely borrow words from each other.

Specialists known as lexicographers work on texts such as dictionaries. These lexicology professionals write out words and their variants, research roots, and define meanings, developing texts which provide resources for people interested in word meanings and origins. Lexicologists are not necessarily involved with the production of dictionaries, though, and their work can be applied in all sorts of ways and from many perspectives.

People who are interested in careers in lexicology should plan on spending rather a lot of time in school, as many people in this field have doctorate degrees and have completed postgraduate work. It helps to have an interest in words and language and to be grounded in one or more foreign languages before entering this field of study. An eye for detail and an interest in history is also recommended for would-be lexicologists. This type of work requires precision and patience, paired with a passion for language.

Samuel Johnson was a famous lexicographer.
Samuel Johnson was a famous lexicographer.

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Discussion Comments


Let me get this straight: Lexicology is the branch of linguistics that deals with the meaning and use of words.

Lexicography is not a branch, but a technique. A lexicographer is one who only works on making dictionaries.

Have I got that right?


When I was teaching Latin roots to a group of middle school students, it became exciting for them to find the origins of the words we were studying as they really had no idea about the history of the words we use today.

In one of the early classes, the students walked in to find different kinds of toy dinosaurs all over their desks and chairs. Next to each toy was taped the original Latin or Greek root of the word. Suddenly, lights went on in the student's minds as each one of them shared their toy dinosaur and the original definition of the word.

For example: The giant brontosaurus' name came from the Greek bronte (thunder) and sauros (lizard). This made sense because we could imagine the huge brontosauros thundering through the land as he walked.

This really made learning Latin and Greek roots easy as well as fun.

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