Words Matter

How We Write Our Definitions

Lexical defining vs. real defining

Sometimes people look up a word like love or truth and they are disappointed at what they see. We know this because they will often correct our definition's deficiencies in the Seen & Heard comments at the entry. Love, for instance, is defined in part as “strong affection for another” or 'attraction based on sexual desire,' and our users let us know how incomplete our definition is:

I have come to understand love in its truest sense as unconditional acceptance...
Love is radiating, reflecting and expressing the good of God...
I think love is a big con...
I'm still trying to understand what that is...

lexical defining

'Lexical defining' seeks to explain what a word means given the context around it. In other words, lexical definitions describe a word—not the concept that word describes.

What gives? Why doesn’t the dictionary tell you what love is? It’s important to know that there are several different types of defining. Dictionaries do what’s called lexical defining: that is, they tell you what a word means given the context around it. Lexical definitions are about the word and the word’s use.

The other kind of defining—the kind that people assume the dictionary does—is sometimes called real defining. That is the attempt to describe the essential nature of something. When the philosopher asks “What is truth?” or “What is beauty?” or “What is love?”, those are the questions that beg real definitions. The dictionary can’t possibly capture and communicate the essential nature of love, beauty, or truth: we leave that to philosophers, theologians, and Internet commenters.

The difference between real and lexical defining sounds like hairsplitting, but it’s a hallmark of modern lexicography. To attempt to blend the two types of defining—to describe both the thing and how the word that describes the thing is used—is madness: love is, after all, a fickle thing.

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