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Introduction to Week 5

Welcome from your course tutor this week and a short overview of the week’s content and activities.

This week is all about meanings and definitions, which many people see as the main function of a dictionary.

If we think about it at all, most of us probably assume that when the dictionary says ‘this is what word X means’ or ‘word Y has five meanings’, that’s the plain and simple truth; that the dictionary records all and only the ‘correct’ meanings of every word; and that the description of meaning in a dictionary is entirely objective, with no interference from personal opinions.

What we hope to show you in this week is a more nuanced picture. Meanings are often dependent on context, and are negotiated and constructed between speakers and listeners, or between writers and readers. They’re also less stable than dictionaries make them look. Try looking up the same word in three different dictionaries, and you will get a slightly different picture in each: one may present the word as having four meanings, another may say it has six – and neither is necessarily better or ‘more true’ than the other. The numbered senses shown in dictionaries are more a construct of lexicography than a reflection of how words are used in real life. We don’t generally go around thinking in terms of dictionary senses. We wouldn’t say ‘When I say sanction, I mean it in sense 2’. We just use the word that fits at a particular moment, without considering how it might be divided up in a dictionary.

And how do dictionary-makers know what words mean? During Week 3, we learned how the evidence of language in use (formerly in citations, nowadays in corpora) underpins almost everything that is said in a good dictionary. So as part of our work this week, we’ll be showing how corpus data helps us to identify word meanings.

Corpus data also shows us the key components of a word’s meaning, enabling lexicographers to home in on the facts that need to be conveyed in the definition. And determining the factual content of a definition is just one half of the defining process: we also need to make sure that the wording of the definition – the way those key facts are expressed – is clear, accessible, and well-adapted to the language level of the intended user.

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Understanding English Dictionaries

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