Sunday, February 19, 2006

Elements of a Great Dictionary: Definitions

The definition is what many would consider the heart of a great dictionary.

It is best to write definitions for words that you know, especially at first. To write a definition, I prefer to begin with an example of how the word is used. I may spot this example in the "wild", by reading it somewhere or hearing it in a conversation. I may seek out an example, an easy task in an age of search engines. If I'm fairly familiar with a word, I may just make up a sentence using the word. Regardless of the source, this example gives me some context.

Let's take the word "cakewalk", which has no definition yet, as I write. This word has a few different senses in English. The one that's familiar to me would go in a sentence like, "Since I have studied English for years, that English quiz should be a cakewalk." (If it's a good sentence, I'll use it later, for an example in my article.)

Now, I try to imagine that I am explaining this word to somebody who hasn't heard of it before, especially somebody who is trying to learn English as a second language. I look back at the example sentence. What did I mean by this word, in simple terms? I meant that the quiz would be easy. So we have that definition: something easy.

At this point, I start thinking of some synonyms for this word. Easy and simple both fit this sense. Basic, insulting, and silly are all a bit outside of the sense of this word, but it's okay to feel around for meanings at this point. It's easy to cross off some extras that don't fit later, and the process of thinking of them might lead to other good ideas. You can also think in terms of antonyms, or phrases, such as "not difficult" or "not presenting a challenge."

One thing that also seems to help beginners is to use the word in a sentence: "A cakewalk is something that is not difficult or does not present a challenge." If it helps to think in these terms, please do. When writing the definition itself, though, leave out the part "A cakewalk is..." or "This is a word meaning...". This is a dictionary, so there's no need to reiterate that the meaning is what's to come.

So the definition goes like this, then:
cakewalk - 1. Something that is easy or simple, or does not present a challenge.

Now, the term "cakewalk" has a history, including other, earlier meanings. If you didn't happen to know that, just put in the definition(s) that you can. The beauty of a wiki is that somebody else can expand an article later. I happen to recall that a cakewalk was originally a contest, and is also a form of music, but I never learned the details of those contexts, at least not well enough to write a proper definition. This is where some research might come in handy.

Wikipedia has an article about cakewalk. (Many other sources do, too, but it's important to be careful of copyright status, so I prefer to check free and open references first.) It turns out that it was a dance contest, and the dance and the music associated with it. The prize was a cake. Part of this information goes in additional definitions, and part goes in the etymology.

I will talk about the other parts of this article as I continue this series, but you can see the finished product of this thought process here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, you really take a lot of time to create entries! :-)

I think it's also helpful to look at the definitions of commercial dictionaries. Of course they shouldn't be copied, but they can be rephrased with your own words. And very often you find that you can improve the definition or add a new definition that isn't included in the commercial dictionary.

12:13 am  
Blogger GerardM said...

:) you cannot add definitions to commercial dictionaries... What you can do is add them to your favourite Free resource

For commercial dictionaries it is really expensive to maintain their content. When you are free to add to a dictionary there may still be a need for verification, the necessary work is much less and this makes for a business model where collaboration is mutually beneficial; more and better content while the resource that builds the commercial offspring is maitained at a lower cost.


1:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course, that's what I meant. :-)
I think it's cool to see that very often the wiktionary entry ends up being better than the commercial entry.

7:24 pm  

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