The Different Ways of Describing Meaning in Monolingual Dictionaries

Term Paper, 2014

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Describing Meaning in Monolingual Dictionaries
2.1 Definitions
2.2 Intensional or Extensional Definitions
2.3 Polysemy
2.4 Collocations

3. Meaning for Learners

4. Describing Meaning in Bilingual Dictionaries

5. Conclusion

6. Research Project
6.1 Setting and Explanation
6.2 Results
6.3 Conclusion

7. Sources

1. Introduction

In his textbook “Lexical Semantics”, D. A. Cruse defines dictionaries as follows: “An ordinary dictionary characterises a lexical item in three distinct, though intimately inter-connected, ways: first, its form (graphic and phonological); second, its grammatical function; and third, its meaning.” (1986: 1)

The biggest challenge for dictionaries usually lies in the latter: the description of meaning. Readers of dictionaries may have different backgrounds of knowledge and a distinct vocabulary, so their understanding of definitions may vary greatly. Bilingual dictionaries have an easier time facing this challenge. They simply state the translation for a lexical unit. Monolingual dictionaries, however, need to find ways to adequately and comprehensively describe meaning, with different target groups in mind.

The following paper will discuss which methods dictionaries use to describe meaning. A special emphasis will be put on monolingual dictionaries and their approach to bringing meaning across to learners of English, who naturally draw on a limited vocabulary and thus may require innovative methods for the description of meaning.

2. Describing Meaning in Monolingual Dictionaries

A monolingual dictionary primarily consists of lexical entries in a specific language, sorted in alphabetical order. These lexical entries are usually composed of a lemma and its description. Lemmata are linguistic units like words or phrases.

The most popular monolingual dictionaries of the British English-speaking world are the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE), the Collins Dictionary of the English Language (COLLINS) and the COBUILD[1] English Language Dictionary (COBUILD). Important American English dictionaries include A Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles (DAE), Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary or A Dictionary of New English (DNE).

Additionally, various monolingual dictionaries for special purposes like collocations, idioms or phrasal verbs have been published.

2.1 Definitions

The definition of a lemma is the central component of a monolingual dictionary. The main function of a definition is to explain the meaning of a word. In this context one should note that academic research into semantics has not yet been able to come up with a system for the description of meaning (cf. Herbst, Klotz 2003: 33). Definitions are an attempt to characterize the ‘meaning’ or sense of a lexeme and to distinguish the meaning of the lexeme contrasted with the meanings of other lexemes in the same semantic field, for example the ‘elephant’ from other large mammals. (Jackson, Zé Amvela, 2009: 211)

At the same time the question remains to which extent it is possible to universally describe meaning anyway. Each dictionary aims at enabling its specific group of readers to obtain an idea as precisely as possible of the meanings of its words. Regarding to this objective, a very flexible and possibly eclectic use of semantic methods might be reasonable (cf. Herbst, Klotz 2003: 33). Correspondingly, definitions in monolingual dictionaries usually contain one or more of the following methods:

1. Descriptive phrases, as shown in the OALD for the word ‘dictionary’:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten [2]

2. Sometimes also full-sentence definitions called COBUILD definitions because they were introduced by this dictionary in 1987 (cf. Svensén 2009: 235):

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten [3]

3. Synonyms or a range of approximately synonymous words, or antonyms like in the Macmillan English Dictionary for the word ‘awake’:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten [4]

4. A combination of a paraphrase and a synonym

5. Pragmatic information about the situational context in which a word is used

6. Encyclopaedic information – “In principle, knowledge of language and knowledge of the world have to be separated, but it is not always easy to draw a neat line in specific cases.” (Lipka 2002: 33)

It is less common for dictionaries to extensively state meaning relations between lexemes, for example synonymy, antonymy, hyponymy or meronymy, which “make a contribution towards the characterization of a lexeme’s meaning” (Jackson, Zé Amvela, 2009: 211). Exceptions like the COBUILD, which notes relations of meaning in an extra column (cf. Jackson, Zé Amvela, 2009: 211) do exist.

The description of meaning in a dictionary cannot be exclusively developed on the basis of categories and methods of lexical semantics. The different usages of a word need to be presented. The meaning of a word in a monolingual dictionary is thus normally defined by the rules for its use and these rules are stated in the descriptions (cf. Herbst, Klotz 2003: 48).

This is emphasised by B. Svensén: “Actually, the treatment of a word in a dictionary does not aim at specifying what the word ‘really’ means but at describing its meaning in a way that is suitable to the needs of the users of the dictionary.” (2009: 205) To phrase these descriptions, the use of a limited vocabulary containing a number of well-known, generally understood words has been proven successful (cf. Herbst, Klotz 2003: 49).

2.2 Intensional or Extensional Definitions

Definitions in dictionaries can be classified as intensional or extensional descriptions of meaning. Intensional and extensional descriptions are often combined with each other. An intensional description, usually the most common, states the superordinate concept, also called genus proximum, next to the definiendum (the lemma to be defined). One feature at least should be addesd as a distinguishing feature, or so-called differentia specifica of the definiendum. For example, if the definiendum or lemma ‘clean’ in a dictionary is described with ‘free from dirt’, ‘free’ is the genus proximum and ‘from dirt’ the differentia specifica (cf. Svensén 2009: 218-219). Genus proximum and differentia specifica combined are called the definiens. “The ideal is when only one such feature needs to be specified in order to achieve the desired result, in other words: as much as possible of the meaning description should be contained in the genus proximum.” (Svensén 2009: 220) Another example for genus proximum and differentia specifica would be the word ‘xylophone’ as shown in the online version of the LDOCE:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten [5]

The extensional definition “is less common in general-language dictionaries and is used mainly in terminography and technical lexicography” and “consists of a listing of all concepts that are included in the definiendum”; ‘motor vehicle’ could for instance be extensionally defined as ‘car, motorcycle, moped, van’ (Svensén 2009: 221).


[1] COBUILD is an acronym for ‘Collins Birmingham University International Language Database’.





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The Different Ways of Describing Meaning in Monolingual Dictionaries
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg  (Institut für Anglistik / Sprachwissenschaft)
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Christian Haas (Author), 2014, The Different Ways of Describing Meaning in Monolingual Dictionaries, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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