Words at Play

The Meaning of "Camp," and Why We Like It

Top 10 Favorite Definitions


For this list, the editors who write the Merriam-Webster dictionary selected some of their favorite definitions, and explained why they chose them.

The Definition:

camp (in the sense of "campy") : something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate, or out-of-date as to be considered amusing

Editor's Note:

"'Camp' is an elusive concept - you could write a whole essay trying to explain what it means, as Susan Sontag did in 1964. But this definition manages to pin down its meaning in just 13 words."

The Definition:

film noir : a type of crime film featuring cynical malevolent characters in a sleazy setting and an ominous atmosphere that is conveyed by shadowy photography and foreboding background music

Editor's Note:

"This definition offers a thorough and satisfying definition of the genre, using unusually colorful language."

The Definition:

garrulous : given to prosy, rambling, or tedious loquacity : pointlessly or annoyingly talkative

Editor's Note:

"The definition precisely explains how this word's meaning differs from related adjectives like chatty and loquacious, and gives you a good sense of the aggravation a garrulous person causes. It's not just being talkative - it's being tediously, pointlessly, and annoyingly (hopefully, not all at once) talkative."

The Definition:

New Age : an eclectic group of cultural attitudes arising in late 20th century Western society that are adapted from those of a variety of ancient and modern cultures, that emphasize beliefs (as reincarnation, holism, pantheism, and occultism) outside the mainstream, and that advance alternative approaches to spirituality, right living, and health.

Editor's Note:

"This is a good example of a definition that comprehensively covers a very broad term."

The Definition:

ace in the hole

1 : an ace dealt face down to a player (as in stud poker) and not exposed until the showdown

2 : an effective and decisive argument or resource held in reserve

Editor's Note:

"Ace in the hole is a phrase that's both familiar and vague - but its meaning becomes clear when you read the first definition (the one that talks about actual playing cards) along with the second more metaphorical one."

The Definition:

memory lane : an imaginary path through the nostalgically remembered past - usually used in such phrases as a walk down memory lane

Editor's Note:

"This definition seems so poetically right that you might think it has always existed. But the editor who wrote it in the early 1980s struggled to come up with this wording and to make sure that it fit not only in the exact phrase mentioned (a walk down memory lane) but also in many other similar phrases and contexts."

The Definition:

codependency : a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (as an addiction to alcohol or heroin); broadly : dependence on the needs of or control by another

Editor's Note:

"Psychological terms can be challenging to define when they've entered mainstream use or 'pop psychology.' Such is the case with codependency, and this definition nicely covers both the specific and more generalized uses of the word."

The Definition:

LASIK : a surgical operation to reshape the cornea for correction of myopia, farsightedness, or astigmatism in which the surface layer of the cornea is separated to create a hinged flap providing access to the inner cornea where varying amounts of tissue are removed by an excimer laser

Editor's Note:

"This definition provides a great amount of information about a relatively complicated procedure, while still remaining easy to understand. Upon consulting this entry, a reader will know not only what the LASIK procedure is used for but also how it is done."

The Definition:

cute : attractive or pretty especially in a childish, youthful, or delicate way

Editor's Note:

"Cute is one of those you-know-it-when-you-see-it ideas, but tough to explain. This definition explains it clearly, and offers a useful distinction between the 'childish,' 'youthful,' and 'delicate' kinds of cute."

Thistledown
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New Words and Slang

The Definition:

thistledown : the typically plumose pappus from the ripe flower head of a thistle

Editor's Note:

"Alliterative, scientific & sexy, precise yet inducing wonder in the (natural) process. Obviously the words plumose and pappus will also need to be looked up by most people, but those are the right words to use here."




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