What is the meaning of this word, please?

John Walsh gives his view on the meanings of English words…

Given the breakdown (or break-up) of the single dictionary definition as an authority, is it still possible to answer the question “What is the meaning of  (a word or phrase)”?  The role of the dictionary has been superseded by the new authority, usage, and by the time you have added in factors such as colloquial and idiomatic use, register, pragmatics, formal and informal, spoken or written, context, and a whole host of other influences, I feel the  task of answering the question is nigh on impossible. I write not from the view of a grumpy old grammarian but more as someone with feeling for those trying to learn our vibrant developing language where the linguistic goalposts are constantly moving.

John H Walsh

Managing Director

The Bournemouth English Book Centre Ltd (BEBC)


4 thoughts on “What is the meaning of this word, please?

  1. Well, I suppose I’m another ‘grumpy old grammarian, then as I agree with you…

  2. I have a love of the etymology of the word, the historical roots of the word. Sometimes it seems like the word has gone through a schizophrenia, not really attached to the original meaning, which may or may not be important. Here are some examples of looking for the etymology: intimacy- a state reached in time; courage- heart, having heart; perfect-to do or give through[like God working through someone]; specify-to make to see. Of course, looking at the etymology is the first step, philosophically, for understanding the phenomena that the word labels. I often find this very insightful.

  3. I thought that our dictionaries were continuing to do their invaluable job of cataloguing current usage and trends. Have English dictionaries ever had a different role? Like Dorothy, I love dictionaries that show me the history of a word – where it came from and the changes it has undergone. What a boring, lifeless language it would be if every word in the dictionary had to remain unchanged forever. But I quite agree that most meanings rely totally on context and it isn’t an easy question to answer. As a translator, I know only too well the dangers of translating words in isolation although, as an EFL business trainer, I know that my students want an instant, one-to-one correspondence between words in their language and in English. I feel for my students, too, but their own languages are changing fast so I think they understand.

  4. Surely a straight translation or explanation of the word is at best meagre. I always try to put the word into a context or even two or three that will convey what the word or phrase means because so much can be gleaned by talking around the meaning without a direct translation or even dictionary definition. I only prohibit one thing in my classes and that is a dictionary regardless of the level of the student. So many students are put off trying to read “real” English books cos they feel defeated by the amount of words they need to look up,so my method is to encourage them to keep on reading regardless. It doesn´t always work!!!!!! but I have had more happy new readers in English than frustrated dictionary junkies.

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