Defining Definitions: A Lexicographical Taxonomy

In the last decades it has become quite fashionable in lexicographical circles to extol the merits of ‘definitions’ in dictionaries, especially over against ‘glosses’. But little attention has been given to the fundamental question of what a definition is, or can be. This paper sets out to define ‘definition’ and to analyse the kinds of definitions a lexicon (especially of the ancient Hebrew language) might employ. The taxonomy developed here will, it is hoped, be of significance to lexicographers generally and especially to those working with ancient languages.

I will begin by distinguishing between definition and gloss. A gloss is a brief, usually one-word, statement of the meaning of a word. A definition is a longer statement of meaning, focusing on the nature or essence of the thing to be defined (that is, of the definiendum), showing what the word’s senses may be. I argue that a gloss should not be conceived of as an opposite to a definition, but as a type of definition.

Definitions are generally categorized as ‘intensional’ definitions, which state the necessary and sufficient features shared by all the items of a given term, and ‘extensional’ definitions, which state the items that a term describes. But I would add in the case of a poorly attested language (like Classical Hebrew) two further distinctions, namely between ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ definitions. An intrinsic definition states the meaning of the term using the evidence available from the texts surviving in the language. Such definitions, though evidence-based, can frequently be misleading because of the narrowness of their base. An extrinsic definition consists of data about the term that are derived from outside the textual evidence in the given language. In the case of the Hebrew lexicon, examples of extrinsic definitions include the year dates of persons or the modern location of places or the scientific names of plants and animals.

My paper will also introduce other types of definition, such as encyclopaedic, negational, attestational and exegetical, and give examples of all the types of definition surveyed.

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