Lexicographers spend most of their time in research. They have to decide which words to include in a dictionary and what they mean. That decision is based on how often a word is used and how it is used. Lexicographers read newspapers, books, magazines, electronic publications, and a variety of other published materials, looking for new words, new meanings of existing words, spelling variations, and anything else that might help them decide whether a word belongs in a dictionary.

They mark words and the accompanying text that might explain how they are used and what they mean. The marked items are entered into a computer database and also recorded on cards or slips of paper, called citations. Each citation contains the word, an example of the word used in context, and bibliographic information about the source where the word and example were found.

During a dictionary editing process, lexicographers have to decide which existing entries can remain unchanged, which ones need revision, which entries to drop, and which new ones to add. All these decisions are based on information in the citations. A new word makes it into a dictionary only if there are enough citations to show that it is widely used. The citations must be from a wide variety of sources over a period of time. (Unlike other dictionaries, which contain words in current usage, the Oxford English Dictionary never drops an entry, but only revises and adds new words.)

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