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Words and Meaning: A Mobius Relationship - Part 2

Or, “From differences come understanding.”

In this series of blog posts, I will attempt to share some of my current thoughts and related ideas on “definitions”.

In the first blog post of this series, I examined definitions of definitions, and introduced a process I call “Definition Dissection”. In this blog post, I will examine dictionaries, definitions, and other sources of definitions.


What is a dictionary?

Before looking up definitions of the word “dictionary”, I already had some idea of what a dictionary is. My definition of “dictionary” was:

Dictionary (n.) – A source of information that provides the meaning of words.

To me, that definition seemed a bit weak but reasonable. But, since I wanted to understand more about dictionaries, I proceeded to look up additional definitions of the word “dictionary” in…dictionaries. As I read each definition of the word “dictionary” I noted some interesting things. But most prominently, I noticed that, while all the definitions were similar, none were the same. These differences made me wonder – Why are the dictionaries and definitions different? Are the differences important? Can different dictionaries and definitions be simultaneously correct? If not, which is correct? And what does “correct” even mean?

I began to research dictionaries and learned that there are different categories, types, and kinds of dictionaries, each beneficial and limited in their purpose and scope. Some dictionaries are prescriptive and attempt to prescribe definitions according to “correct” usage, while other dictionaries are descriptive and attempt to describe definitions according to actual usage. There are general dictionaries that provide definitions for a broad range of common words, and specialized dictionaries that focus only on definitions of words within a specific subject or domain. There are dictionaries intended for specific regions, languages, dialects, and vocabularies. Some dictionaries only focus on current, modern definitions, while other dictionaries include obsolete words and etymological information, as well. There are rhyming dictionaries, crossword dictionaries, reverse dictionaries, pictorial dictionaries, satirical dictionaries, and bilingual dictionaries.

I learned that there are diverse dictionaries, each different and useful in their own way. And this helped me better understand, identify, and select various dictionaries (as needed), and better understand why dictionaries and definitions might be different.


I then began to research definitions themselves and learned that, like dictionaries, there are different categories and types, as well as characteristics of good definitions. At a high level, there are 2 main categories of definitions: intensional and extensional. Simply, intensional definitions define a word by providing the essence, or essential characteristics of a word, while extensonal definitions define a word by providing examples of a word. Sub-classes of extensional definitions are enumerative definitions, which provide all examples of a word in a finite set, and ostensive definitions, which defines a word by actually pointing out examples.

I also learned that there are many types of definitions. Some that I found interesting and useful are: lexical definitions (like those you might find in a dictionary), precising definitions (an extension of a lexical definition that includes more specific information), stipulative definitions (a definition that assigns new or different meaning to a new or existing word), and persuading definitions (a definition that includes emotive meaning).

Finally, I learned some common properties of intensional and lexical definitions. These types of definitions typically include the essence, or essential characteristics of a word being defined – that is, the definition should describe the necessary (required) and sufficient (adequate) conditions or characteristics of a word that sets it apart from other words. Similarly, definitions should also be equivalent to the word being defined – not too wide or too narrow, while avoiding circularity. Definitions should attempt to provide clarity – specific and unambiguous, helping to further understanding. And definitions should be neutral – avoiding emotional language and bias. I learned that there are diverse definitions, each different and useful in their own way.

This helped me better understand, identify, create, and use various definitions (as needed), and further understand why dictionaries and definitions might be different.

Other sources

I was still curious and wanted to learn more, so, I decided to find more definitions of the word “dictionary” in other, non-dictionary sources. I discovered additional definitions in various blogs, articles, and encyclopedias. I also found interesting definitions by asking and speaking directly with people. Again, I noticed that while all the definitions were similar, none were the same.

So what?

All of this research was to try and better understand why various dictionaries and definitions might different, and what that means.

During my research, I came across an interesting, funny, and related quote by John Ralston Saul (Canadian philosopher and novelist):

“Dictionary (n.) – Opinion presented as truth in alphabetical order.”

To me, that quote, this research, and my subsequent reflection, all lead me believe that, ultimately, dictionaries and definitions are subjective. All dictionaries and definitions originate from (and are used by) people. They are not absolute, but rather are subject to interpretation, which is based on numerous factors, such as background, experience, environment, situation, relationships, and much more. This leads to differences. A "correct" definition exists only in some context. Recognizing and appreciating this helps me better communicate with others.

In later blog posts, I will attempt to share more of my current thoughts and related ideas on what this means to me, meaning, and communication.

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