Definition: the core of a dictionary entry

Especially monolingual dictionaries include definitions and this is certainly one of the most important aspects of a dictionary. Maybe it is interesting to have a look at one definition of the term “definition” itself in the Oxford Advanced Learner` s Dictionary:

“definition (…): an explanation of the meaning of a word or a phrase, especially in a dictionary; the act of stating the meaning of words and phrases: (…) “ (Wehmeier, Sally; Ashby, Michael (ed.): Oxford Advanced Learner` s Dictionary of Current English, 6th ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 330)

According to the Oxford Companion to the English Language a definition can range from a dictionary definition to an encyclopaedic definition. The first one is mostly shorter. One thing is for sure: there is no recipe of defining. It depends on the author`s aims and choices how long a definition is and what should be included in it: the “definiens” (the statement which defines the word to be defined, which is itself called “definiendum”) varies in length and density. A definition depends on experience. Someone who has never been in the jungle needs a different definition of the term than someone living in it. It is important what group of readers a definition is intended for, but normally you can expect that someone looking for a definition is no expert and does not know much of the term s/he looks up.

It is hard to define obvious and simple terms. Try to define “chair” as shortly as possible! You will have problems as there are numerous kinds of chairs and various aspects which could be considered. Nevertheless no dictionary maker can afford to leave out these basic definitions although, as almost everyone knows what a chair is, the definition is very rarely looked up.

Terms can be defined in various ways. A circular definition is one that defines two matching terms with a reference to each other like in a circle (example: crocodile=alligator; alligator=crocodile). This is very important in monolingual dictionaries, where the “circles” of definition should be large enough to really help the user. Synonymy and paraphrasing are popular with dictionary makers, too. If two words are closely related but not exactly synonymous, the related words can be defined by the categories of genus and differentia. When words have the same genus, their definitions start in the same way to mark that fact and end with the exposition of their differentia, their distinguishing features. There are words which are not defined in a dictionary. Especially adverbs which are created by adding –ly to an adjective are listed “run-on” and the reader is expected to make his own conclusions. Definition is no easy branch of dictionary making. You have to know what you want to emphasize when defining and try to be as objective and precise as possible without omitting facts. Definition is mostly not important in some ESL or bilingual dictionaries. Here, the translation between two languages is focussed (McArthur, Tom; McArthur, Feri (ed.): The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 282 f.).


Which type of definition is usually shorter?

the dictionary definition
the encyclopaedic definition

The definiendum is...

...the statement which defines the word to be defined
...the word to be defined

Try to define the word "table" as shortly BUT also as precise as possible. When you have finished you can look up definitions in monolingual dictionaries. Try to mark differences! Where could you have been more precise or shorter?

As a start we will give you one example from the OALD and an internet link to an online dictionary. Please look up more definitions for yourselves!

Oxford Advanced Learner` s Dictionary` s solution