Word Matters Podcast

How to Read a Dictionary Entry

Word Matters, Episode 17

word matters podcast logo

When you read a definition, what do you see? Is one meaning of a word more important than another? Who decides this, anyway? Join us for a deep dive into the myths and mysteries of the dictionary.

Download the episode here.


(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

(teaser clip)

Peter Sokolowski: If you read an entry that has definitions in historical order, you're actually kind of reading the biography of the word. This is where it started. This is where it got its education. This is where it got married.

(music break)

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, some dictionary demystification. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam- Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language, from the dictionary's vantage point.

Emily Brewster: Dictionaries are pretty straightforward once you find your way past the weird pronunciation symbols and a few abbreviations, right? If there's more than one definition given, the one with the one beside it is definitely the main one, and the others are secondary and tertiary and so on, right? Sorry, no. But worry not. Peter Sokolowski is here to explain just what the order of definitions in a dictionary entry means.

Peter Sokolowski: One common assumption of dictionary definitions is that the first definition that you read of a word is the most important one. And I think that's so common as a misunderstanding, that in fact, it's probably worth investigating. The point being, lexicographers and linguists often don't at all think in that way, and that leads to confusion. In fact, to a lot of confusion. And I find that when I speak to educators, for example, English professors, English teachers who teach English as a second language, they're often fascinated and surprised to learn that it's not always true, that the first sense is the most important one. Is that something that has occurred to you guys as a problem?

Ammon Shea: Sure, we see that all the time. People are constantly saying like the words, primary sense.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Ammon Shea: The most correct sense.

Emily Brewster: The main meaning of this word is.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: The main meaning.

Emily Brewster: Because it has that little one preceding it.

Ammon Shea: And then having secondary and tertiary meanings or something like that.

Emily Brewster: Right. When in fact, most of the time, when you look up a dictionary definition in Merriam-Webster's sources, historically, they have been in historical order.

Ammon Shea: Right. And that's the case with the Oxford English Dictionary as well. They arrange the entries chronologically.

Peter Sokolowski: Chronologically. So, when we say historical order, even that seems to me kind of like inside baseball, because what we mean is, the oldest sense is the first one. And it leads to a lot of extrapolations that we need to explain, I think.

Peter Sokolowski: One of them being that if you read an entry that has definitions in historical order, you're actually kind of reading the biography of the word. This is where it started. This is where it got its education. This is where it got married. You can sort of track it down in a way etymologically, but certainly through its use in English over the centuries. And as a kind of word professional, I find that ceaselessly fascinating. However, it has to be said that to lots of people, maybe that's not the first and most important reason you're looking a word up, and it may not be so clear to everyone, especially if the first sense is, for example, a meaning that's completely lost in contemporary English.

Ammon Shea: One of the things that you should also point out, I think, is that there are only one current dictionary that actually attempts to define all the meanings of a word in its English history, and that's of course the Oxford English Dictionary, where they attempt to trace the meanings of words back to Old English. They're the only ones that do this. It is one of the reasons why the last print edition of the book was 21,730 pages long. And they're approximately doubling in size as they go through the third edition.

Emily Brewster: Ammon, it would be insane for somebody to read that book.

Ammon Shea: Yes, it would be, but we can leave that alone for now. But Merriam-Webster, we are also, our unabridged dictionary, is a historical document as well. It just does not have the same breadth as the Oxford English Dictionary. And for the Third International Dictionary, which I think we still hold to that, if a word was not still in common use by 1755, we would not enter it.

Emily Brewster: Unless it also appeared in some kind of significant literature, unless people were still going to possibly encounter it in some kind of serious academic study.

Ammon Shea: Right. Chaucer and Shakespeare, their words would both still [crosstalk 00:04:26].

Peter Sokolowski: Sure.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Peter Sokolowski: And they'd be labeled obsolete if that was the case.

Emily Brewster: But Merriam-Webster's dictionaries typically include words that we have reason to believe that people are likely to encounter at some point in their lives.

Ammon Shea: Right. So, within this particularly broad tranche of the English language, we were ordering them in chronological order. However, there are possible senses of all these individual words which may have fallen outside of this time period.

Emily Brewster: Yes.

Ammon Shea: And also because we're talking about the biography of a word or about the life story of a word, as we order the senses, we sort of give a story of how these senses have developed. Usually, in a lot of examples, if you look at sense two from sense one, you can almost see what caused sense two to develop by knowing the meaning of sense one. Sense one might refer to a physical object, whereas sense two might refer to kind of a figurative sense of the word. It might refer to something that is analogous to the original object that was defined in sense one. This is how language develops. Meanings spread over time. They fall out of use sometimes. They alter, they twist. So, that is how sub-sense is developed. That is how new senses develop. So, to put them in the order that one caused another, I'm showing a cause and effect of language, tells the story of the word effectively. And that is one of the reasons why we want to put these things in historical order.

Ammon Shea: One of the things that I find particularly galling though, is that the people that Peter had kind of alluded to earlier, that not only do they think that the first sense of the word is the primary and the important sense, but who know that they are ordered historically and still think that well, the first historical sense is the primary sense, is the most important sense of the word. And it's an argument that, on its face, has a certain kind of value, so you can see why that would make sense.

Ammon Shea: However, it really quickly falls apart when you start looking at a number of specific words. So for instance, if we look at century, which we define historically on our unabridged, you will see the first perhaps primary sense of the word is a subdivision of the Roman Legion, which is not a sense in which anybody is really using century nowadays. And if you look at century in our online dictionary, based on the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, you see the first definition we give is a period of 100 years. This is perhaps the most common. However, we would really like to stress that most common is by no means the same as saying best or most important or most correct or anything. We are not assigning value to these words. We're assigning perceived intent on the part of the user.

Peter Sokolowski: This is one of the greatest defenses of historical order. Because of the limitations of the printed page, we do have to put one after another. And so, it was decided at a certain point to order them so that, that order conveys, all by itself, some kind of meaning, that by putting this second, that means it came after the first one, not just that it's arbitrary, not that it's a grocery list of meanings, it's an actual list that itself conveys a meaning.

Peter Sokolowski: Now, having said all of this, it has to be said also that, that's not always what people are looking for when they look up a word in the dictionary. They just want to see what it means. And we know that this is frustrating to others. One example that sort of echoes what Ammon just said about the Roman legions is the word decimate, which people love to point out purportedly used in English to mean to select by lot and kill every 10th man of a Roman Legion. That's a usage that I have never encountered other than inciting the definition itself. It's not a common use at all of this term. And yet, we do still present that as the first definition, as did Noah Webster.

Peter Sokolowski: But if you look at more recent dictionaries and some that are organized in slightly different ways, for example, our dictionary for non-native speakers of English, the Learner's Dictionary, at LearnersDictionary.com, we have as sense one at decimate to destroy a large number of, or to severely damage or destroy a large part of something. And so, we've actually dropped that Roman Legion punishment sense altogether because nobody uses it.

Ammon Shea: I want to jump in here for a minute with a real peeve of my own. We are thoroughly descriptive, this bunch. We're not supposed to be descriptive in any way. And I do try to adhere to that, but I have to say, the thing about decimate should only be used to mean killing 1 of every 10 people is a stupid peeve. That is the hill upon which I am more than willing to die. I don't know why this particular one got stuck in our heaving consciousness, but there are so many other words which we have in English, which deal with, specifically with Roman military history as their first use, and nobody will ever say, "Oh, ovation. I used that to standing ovation." But well, actually, ovation was the ceremony for a Roman general who won a victory that wasn't so impressive. And if you said, "Oh, a rousing triumph." Well, actually, in Roman military history and the first use of triumph in English was for the parade given to a general who had a resounding victory.

Ammon Shea: If you say this stuff about like ovation and triumph, people are going to stab you in the eye with a fork. Everyone around them will applaud. But for some reason, this absurd fidelity to decimate is viewed as a character benefit rather than a tragic flaw. It's not even a tragic flaw. It's an absurd flaw.

Peter Sokolowski: It's a shibboleth. It identifies you as one of the group of people who knows that D-E-C represents 10 in Latin-based words or something. I totally agree. For example, nobody ever argues that nepotism should only apply to biological nephews, which would be making the exact same argument. And so, this is what we call etymological fallacy. Is that correct? Sort of arguing that the current meaning of an English word should correspond to its original root word etymon's meaning in Latin or Greek or wherever it came from. That was an eloquent rant.

Ammon Shea: I think people tend to hold dearly, especially those words that show obviously in their roots, especially when they pertain to numbers, because numbers encourage precision, and numbers encourage exactness in counting. And so, I think of the word myriad, referred to the sum of 10,000, and now it can refer to, it was a myriad of reasons. You're not talking exactly 10,000. The precision is lost. That's another word I think people often will complain about is that lack of clinging to the precise meaning, and then kind of gradually losing that precision, and then just kind of having a more general meaning, perhaps used with a sense of exaggeration.

Neil Serven: I'm going to start complaining about December not being the 10th month.

Peter Sokolowski: There we go.

Emily Brewster: Yes. December should be...

Ammon Shea: Just to stick it to the man.

Emily Brewster: Yes.

Peter Sokolowski: And October is not the eighth month.

Emily Brewster: But to get back to sense order, I think it's important to note that we are actively changing our procedure on the ordering of senses. At the beginning of my lexicographical career, it was very much our practice to order the senses, the different definitions at an entry, in its historical order. And I remember being taught and just thinking of it as being like, well, it's hard to order things according to what is most common, which sense a foot is most common. Is it the measurement or is it the appendage? What we can look at is actually the historical development of a word's meaning, its semantic development. But as of a few years ago, our instructions as lexicographers are now to order the senses at an entry in whatever way is likely to be most helpful to the reader.

Peter Sokolowski: That's a big difference. It's a huge shift.

Ammon Shea: Right. Emily, you do a lot of the really complex polysemous entries in our dictionary. You do a lot of, what I like to think of the "Thank God I'm not doing that work," like defining set and put and run, the words which just have these dozens, if not hundreds of possible meanings. Do you feel drunk with power when you sit down to work on one of these?

Emily Brewster: It makes it a different kind of a puzzle. No, there is no drunk with power.

Neil Serven: Tipsy.

Peter Sokolowski: But the thing is, Emily mentions this, and I think we should put as a kind of a footnote that Merriam-Webster's tradition had always been in this historical order, as was the Oxford tradition, but there are other ways of doing this, and other dictionaries that have done the sort of most common sense as the first sense for decades, if not longer. And I believe that's the case for some of the great American desk dictionaries. The Webster's New World College Dictionary was marketed in many ways as being a more readable college dictionary than the Merriam-Webster one. That was their angle. So, they use simpler language in the defining, and they order them in a kind of a common sense or the most common sense as the first definition.

Peter Sokolowski: And I believe that is also true for the American Heritage program, another great handmade dictionary. These were dictionaries that were founded in some ways kind of in opposition to the Merriam-Webster tradition, from their beginnings had a different way of organizing things. It also has to be said that the Merriam-Webster dictionary for kids are of course oriented in a most common first way. And the big change for Emily and me as definers at Merriam-Webster, we were there when this shift happened...

Emily Brewster: And Neil too.

Peter Sokolowski: Because we did a project that required us to think about this in a different way. That project was the Learner's Dictionary for non-native speakers that we mentioned before. And for that, we were given strict orders to change the order of senses, and to make it more logical, and use the most common sense first. And that really became the beginning of this change in all of our dictionaries, because we recognized how much more useful it is to most people.

Ammon Shea: But even as we shifted our procedure from strict historical order to, as Emily mentioned, the order that would be most helpful to the reader, most helpful to the reader, even from an editor's perspective, that's a very subjective idea, right?

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Ammon Shea: And so, but also one of the things that brought this on is the fact that we were kind of shifting to a digital product. We didn't have the linear visual definitions, listed one right after another on the page. We had definitions that were kind of listed on this scroll site that could sometimes get really long for some entries. And I think we were finding, as people were using the site, certain entries that might've been down at 12D might have gotten buried when they maybe deserve more obvious placement. There is still this effort, I think, when we define and arrange entries to still tell the story of the word in this clear way. One of the examples I think of an entry that changed its order is the noun mouse or M-O-U-S-E, which of course, developed an obvious new sense when computers became prominent in homes.

Ammon Shea: And for a long time, we had four senses at mouse. The first was the animal. The second was a timid person. The third was a dark-colored swelling caused by a blow, such as a black eye, the fourth being the computer accessory. Now, if you look on Merriam-Webster.com, you will see that previously fourth entry, the computer accessory listed second. But the story of the word is still apparent with this. Obviously, the animal is the first thing people think of when they think of a mouse, but these other senses take different characteristics of the animal mouse and then develop their own meanings. So, the timid person, obviously, because we think of mice as being timid, as running away from where they're scared. A dark-colored swelling, we might think of the color of a mouse as fur of a field mouse of being kind of a dark gray.

Ammon Shea: The computer mouse, I've always presumed, was based on resemblance. It's got the little hump shaped the way they used to be designed with the cord coming out, which might be likened to a tail. So, each of these almost individually kind of derived from that first sense. Telling the story of the word is not changed so drastically when that sense for a computer mouse was then moved to sense two. Sense two was up there because I think people were more likely to recognize that sense than they might've been the mouse that we think of as a black eye.

Emily Brewster: But it is true that in an entry that has been reordered, you cannot trace the semantic development of the word the way that you used to.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Emily Brewster: But that's just part of the compromise. We do have a date for every entry that tells you which sense is the earliest sense that we enter, and the year that sense came into use in English. In an entry that has been reordered, you can't do that tracing any longer, which is why our listeners may still be interested in Merriam-Webster's unabridged, which is still in historical order.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely. So, you look down at the date and if it says, for example, sense three, then you can orient yourself at least to the origin of that word in English. And I find that to be very, very useful.

Ammon Shea: When the patent was filed for the mouse, the inventor, Douglas Engelbart referred to it on his patent filing as an X-Y position indicator for a display system. We do not actually define that.

Emily Brewster: If you have a question or a comment, email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. Also, let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts. You can also visit us at NEPM.org. And for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit Merriam-Webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster, in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!