Anyone reading this will have gone to a dictionary at some time another to 'get the meaning' of a word. It's what we do, and it's what dictionaries were invented for: to help us with words. So far so good. But what if this helping function has slipped into the idea that dictionaries aren't just there to help us but to tell us what is the meaning, what should be the meaning and that any other meanings are wrong? No one who puts dictionaries together really thinks this. At least I don't think so. It's just that I see people talking about dictionaries as if that's what they do: tell us what meanings should be. This is to give dictionaries a special power over us. But what is the truth of the matter?
For a start, the meaning of words lies with us. We own language, use language, share it, and we make meanings out of it through the way we use words. Meanings are held in our collective use of language. Further, language is always in use and in context: any word, phrase, sentence or longer chunk of language has the context of who has spoken or written it, who is hearing or reading it; it has the context of its subject matter; it has the context of its 'kind' or 'genre'. These contexts are not outside of language or merely influencing language, they are part of language. Every time we say 'Yes' (or any of the many variations of it) we reveal that we are saying it because of context: it may be an answer to a question, it maybe an exhortation to oneself (Yes!), it maybe part of a song or poem, 'Yes, I remember Adlestrop...', it may be on an ad as part of convincing us that we should buy what's on offer and so on. All this is not just 'in' the word 'Yes' however it is defined. We get 'yes' to work for us in context using the context to give it meaning, using 'yes' to give more meaning to the context. Even the way we say it, 'Yeah', or 'Yay' etc will depend on minute calculations we make about who I am, who am I with, who am I speaking to. We make judgements about appropriateness (or deliberate inappropriateness, (think teenagers)). So the meaning of 'yes' can be found in a dictionary and yet the actual full meanings are 'held' in the place and time of us saying it and with the people hearing it.
This idea of language embedded in the people using it is a far cry from the way people talk about 'grammar' as directed by the National Curriculum and the like. This matter of social, interpersonal, contextual situation is of virtually no interest. And yet, this is why and how we use language! How absurd: the very reason why we humans have devised language and use language is put out the door while we study language! There's something wrong there.
Now back to 'definitions'. Let's say, we do want to have a go at defining a word. We don't have to leave it to dictionaries and this is a great fun and interesting thing to do with young people. It brings up the question of what do we mean by 'meaning'! What are the ingredients we might need for a definition?
In no particular order:
examples or 'illustrations' giving the occasion and situation for the example.
what we think of as 'essential' to say about the word, its ingredients, perhaps?
we might ask ourselves are these essential aspects of the meaning, it's 'necessary' conditions or its 'sufficient' conditions or both? So are its essential aspects, pertaining to this object alone, do they 'define' this object and no other? Are these essential aspects enough to define it, or what do we need to add to make it enough? Are we sure that we've included the key thing(s) without which this object would not be defined?
we might want to consider what type of word it is in its different uses.Words can be used by us in very different ways depending on where, when, with whom, what kind of social or 'genre' context. We might want to include these.
we might want to think of the limits of the word. That is, what it can't do. What situations that are near or related that this word is not useful or appropriate in? Why would that be?
we might want to write a bit about who uses the word and who is unlikely to use the word. Why is that? (This will take us into the area of register, code, slang etc)
we might want to talk about what we know of the history of the word and its uses. Does this history tell us anything important?
words become classified as slang, colloquial, informal while others are given contextual tags like 'legal' or 'sport'. What tags might we want to attach to this word? These tags are not the same in kind. Some are about perceived layers of usage. Some are more about usage connected to professions or fields of interest. Even so they are interesting areas to discuss.
dictionaries always use words that mean things that are 'like' the word in question. Roget's Thesaurus can help us do this. The idea of 'lexical field' is interesting here. In any passage of writing or speech, we use words that are to do with that 'field' or that 'subject matter'. They are linked, not identical but they all help each other as we try to make ourselves clear or produce imaginative writing that has different aspects of the same thing. Our definitions might be helped with additions from the 'lexical field'. (Strictly speaking, lexical field is a useful term for analysing texts - ie what words or expressions might we find in this passage that are related in the same lexical field? But the term can be adapted to fit this job too. Perhaps?
one interesting problem: some words seem not really to have 'meaning' as with, say, 'table' or 'anger' but seem just to do stuff in sentences, words like 'to' or 'the' or even 'am'. And some words have meaning in some sentences and others seem more like the non-meaning words. A word like 'do' is like this. It can have a lot of meaning if I say, 'I did my homework' and not so much when I say, 'Do you watch TV?'
these non-meaning words are important but very hard to 'define'. They seem to be 'operational' in that they help sentences hang together. But then all words to that to. On the other hand they don't 'refer' as other words do. So 'table' refers to a thing (or actually several very different things!) but 'to' doesn't seem to refer to anything. It's like mortar between bricks: holding the wall together. You can have fun trying to define these or looking to see how dictionaries try to do it.
If everyone in a group (a class) chooses a different word to define, and these words come from very different areas of use, then we will have at the end of this a mini-dictionary, a snapshot of attitudes to language from this group of people at this particular time and place.
Of course, it's great to use dictionaries, Roget's Thesaurus, online dictionaries, to help do this. OED is available online for free through your local library.
With so-called slang words, it may well be that there are people in the room who know more about its usage than any dictionary. This illustrates very quickly something to do with who 'owns' language, who knows implicitly about who knows about how social life tells us about meaning.