When was the last time you consulted a dictionary? Which word did you try to find? When you found the meaning of the word in the dictionary, did you understand its definition? Have you used that word both in writing and in speech? Do other people understand the meaning of a word the same way you do?
Say you are writing an essay on the concept of “love.” Would you consult the dictionary for its denotation? Or would you define it based on what you know of it, without consulting any other resource material? Would you consider including a connotation, or what other things other people associate with “love” that are not necessarily defined by a dictionary? Do you think people would have the same understanding of “love”? If not, why do you say so?
Understanding the meaning of words can be a tricky business, because language is dynamic; language continuously changes. As the world and the people living in it change, so do words and its meanings change. People have idiosyncratic interpretations of concepts; each one of us has different backgrounds and personalities that determine how we understand words. This is why defining is essential. It enables us to better understand words, and, in turn, makes other people understand what we mean. Defining is trying to understand the meanings of a word or an expression. It is analyzing, delineating, exploring, and discovering the different aspects of a particular concept. Most of the time, a definition first comes into mind as an observation—a mere judgment of a perceived concept, eventually evolving into other meanings as the person who perceives the concept changes. It is also knowing what other concepts are associated with a word, what it is not, what it is like, what are its causes and effects, and what are some of its examples. Ultimately, defining is expressing how one perceives a word based on his/ her own personal experiences.
What is definition?
Defining is understanding the essence of a word, an idea, a concept, or an expression. It should be done clearly or through specific terms so that even the most abstract concepts (e.g., love, happiness, passion, lust, justice, globalization) can easily be understood and relatable to the human perception. The main purpose of defining is to give information to the reader as to what the author intends to explain. As such, defining tends to not argue and to not persuade. It simply informs. It is also one way of clarifying misinterpretation or misuse of conventional understanding of words.
Two very important concepts most often associated with defining are denotation and connotation. Denotation is the primary, explicit, or literal definition of a word. One can say that denotation is also the meaning of a word based on a dictionary. Connotation, on the other hand, is the secondary meaning of a word. It is not necessarily included in the dictionary; rather, it is how people understand a word based on their own personal or consensual experiences, and not based on a dictionary.To illustrate, let us have the example of a rose. According to the online version of the Oxford Dictionary, a rose is,…
“…The flower or a flowering stem of any of numerous wild and cultivated plants of the genus Rosa; esp. the large, many-petalled flower of any of the numerous cultivated varieties of this plant, typically red, white, or yellow, and often scented, but also occurring in a wide variety of other forms and colours” (“Rose” www.oxforddictionaries.com, retrieved May 16, 2015).
This is the denotation of the word “rose.” On the other hand, a bouquet of roses is usually what a person gives to his/her beloved. Beyond being a flower with a scientific name, a rose can also connote love and romance.
Besides denotation and connotation, the following are techniques that one can use in a definition essay:
Analysis is the process of breaking down a concept into its constituent parts. It also entails detailing in which one, rather than zooming out and describing the concept as a whole, zooms in and focuses on describing the aspects that make up a concept.
The guitar is a musical instrument that produces sound primarily through strumming its strings. Its sound is modified or manipulated through the interaction of the strings with the other parts of the guitar, which are the headstock or simply the head, the tuners, the nut, the neck, the sound hole, the body, and the bridge.
Collocation means that there are words or expressions that are usually almost immediately associated with the concept you are trying to define.These words or expression are usually located together, hence the name “collocation.”
Passion is usually collocated with the terms “love” and “lust.” While these three words are not only compared but also contrasted in the sample text above, they are most often defined in terms of each other because they share a common semantic feature of “intense liking.”
Comparison is associating the word or expression you are trying to define with something else not necessarily synonymous with it. It is highly dependent on imagery which creates a vivid picture of a concept in the reader’s mind. Comparison is usually used through analogy or figurative language like similes and metaphors. ‘It is used to make abstract concepts more understandable by using comparison to appeal to the human senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
“Groping for imagery I find myself thinking of…passion as hot, strong, almost thick coffee…Coffee unleashes energy, has a full-bloodied flavour, a touch of bitterness unpleasant to others, but delicious to the drinker!’
Contrasting is understanding how at least two similar concepts are different from each other. In the sample essay of Appassionato, Gonzalez mentions that “passion” and “love” are usually collocated because they mean almost the same thing. To lessen the ambiguity between the two, the author uses metaphors to contrast “passion” and “love”:
“Love is softness; passion is smoulder. Love might be contentment, but passion is adventure. It must be free, untethered. It must explore, drive beyond the boundaries, break moulds. Passion discovers, unearths, examines, magnifies, revels in details. Love rolls up details into a coherent whole. Love is passive; passion hyperactive. Where love is melancholic, passion is pain!’
Etymology is the history of a word. It explains the evolution of a word or how it has come to be.
“Appassionato is the past participle of a Latin word that means ‘to impassion’… If passion is so good, then why do many fear it? Because by its etymology (from the Latin word ‘passus; past participle of ‘pati’ meaning to suffer) it brings pain. To be capable of passion one must be open, vulnerable and brave enough to stare pain in the eye:’
Exemplification and Illustration
Exemplification is defining something by giving examples. Illustration, on the other hand, is giving an example and focusing on it to elaborate on the concept you are trying to define.
Books are considered to be credible and reputable resource materials to consult when you are trying to find the definition of a word. Some examples are dictionaries, thesauri, encyclopedias, and manuals.
Extended definition is a personal interpretation of an author to an abstract and multifaceted concept. It goes beyond denotation and connotation. It gives the reader a new and fresh understanding of a concept as it largely draws upon the author’s own perspective of the world.
“I believe that a life lived with passion shimmers, shines, rises above the ordinary. Allow me to seduce you into passionate existence. To think, to sing, maybe even to sigh—appassionato.”
Another way of understanding what a word or concept means is to know its purpose. It answers the question: What is it used for?
Whether it may be an ancient sundial, a classy pocket watch, a Rolex or Swatch wrist watch, an antique grandfather’s clock, or the mighty Big Ben of London, a clock, first and foremost, is a mechanical device or technology whose primary purpose is to measure time.
Negation is a technique that you can use to define a word or concept by explaining what it is not.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.”
– 1 Corinthians 13:4-6
Synonyms are a single word or phrase that share almost the same meaning with the concept you are trying to define.
According to Dictionary.com, “mawkish” means “characterized by sickly sentimentality”or”weakly emotional:’ It can be considered synonymous to “nauseating”and “sickening” due to dependence on too much emotion.
Slang or colloquial language can also be somewhat considered under the umbrella term of synonyms.
Another name for hashish is marijuana; popular slang in the United States also calls it “pot” or”grass.”
– Concepcion D. Dadufalza, Reading into Writing 2: A Handbook-Workbook-Reader for Critical Reading and Writing in Expository Discourse
To reiterate, some techniques of elaborating or explaining a concept in a definition essay are: analysis, collocation, comparison and contrast, etymology, exemplification and illustration, extended definition, function, negation, and, synonyms. There is no one technique or ten techniques to sufficiently explain a word or concept. These techniques can be combined however way the author deems necessary and appropriate in his/her definition essay.