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How to Catch Your Unicorn: Defining Meaning in Ælfric's Glossary, the Oxford English Dictionary, and Urban Dictionary


Seiler, Annina (2020). How to Catch Your Unicorn: Defining Meaning in Ælfric's Glossary, the Oxford English Dictionary, and Urban Dictionary. Dictionaries, 41(2):245-276.

Abstract

Based on the entries for the word unicorn, this paper investigates how meaning is defined in three very different dictionaries: Aelfric’s Glossary (ÆGl), the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Urban Dictionary (UD). Starting with ÆGl in the Old English period, the paper shows that different types of definitions as described by Lew (2013) are already present and that Ælfric’s definitions of unicorn, in fact, combine divergent concepts of this mythological creature. The different meanings of unicorn presented by Ælfric are reflected in some of the multiple senses of this word as defined by the monumental OED. A comparison with the multiple entries for unicorn in UD reveals that one of the most prominent sense of unicorn as ‘a very attractive (and hence unobtainable) person’ from UD is missing from the OED – and also from the Lexico, a spin-off of the OED focusing on contemporary language. On the one hand, this reveals each dictionary’s bias for a particular register. On a more fundamental level, however, the evidence calls into question in how far classic dictionary definitions are actually able to convey word meaning. Hanks flags some of the problems as follows: “Some modern lexical semantic theorists […] would argue that this apparently simple aim [i.e. to attain precision and clarity in the definition of terms] is unachievable because it takes insufficient account of the vague, fuzzy, and flexible nature of word meaning in natural language, understates the role of context, and overlooks the prevalence of metaphorical extension of meaning” (2016: 94f.). In this sense, the multiple overlapping and competing definitions of the UD are more successful in representing the fuzziness of word meaning. In a similar way, ÆGl, though written by a single author, combines different sources on the unicorn without merging them into a unified account. Thus, from a typological perspective, medieval glossaries turn out to share certain features with crowd-sourced lexicographical resources like UD, and both are quite distinct from professional lexicography in how they approach word meaning.

Abstract

Based on the entries for the word unicorn, this paper investigates how meaning is defined in three very different dictionaries: Aelfric’s Glossary (ÆGl), the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Urban Dictionary (UD). Starting with ÆGl in the Old English period, the paper shows that different types of definitions as described by Lew (2013) are already present and that Ælfric’s definitions of unicorn, in fact, combine divergent concepts of this mythological creature. The different meanings of unicorn presented by Ælfric are reflected in some of the multiple senses of this word as defined by the monumental OED. A comparison with the multiple entries for unicorn in UD reveals that one of the most prominent sense of unicorn as ‘a very attractive (and hence unobtainable) person’ from UD is missing from the OED – and also from the Lexico, a spin-off of the OED focusing on contemporary language. On the one hand, this reveals each dictionary’s bias for a particular register. On a more fundamental level, however, the evidence calls into question in how far classic dictionary definitions are actually able to convey word meaning. Hanks flags some of the problems as follows: “Some modern lexical semantic theorists […] would argue that this apparently simple aim [i.e. to attain precision and clarity in the definition of terms] is unachievable because it takes insufficient account of the vague, fuzzy, and flexible nature of word meaning in natural language, understates the role of context, and overlooks the prevalence of metaphorical extension of meaning” (2016: 94f.). In this sense, the multiple overlapping and competing definitions of the UD are more successful in representing the fuzziness of word meaning. In a similar way, ÆGl, though written by a single author, combines different sources on the unicorn without merging them into a unified account. Thus, from a typological perspective, medieval glossaries turn out to share certain features with crowd-sourced lexicographical resources like UD, and both are quite distinct from professional lexicography in how they approach word meaning.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:06 Faculty of Arts > English Department
Dewey Decimal Classification:820 English & Old English literatures
Language:English
Date:2020
Deposited On:22 Dec 2020 12:49
Last Modified:13 Mar 2024 04:35
Publisher:Dictionary Society of North America
ISSN:0197-6745
OA Status:Closed
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1353/dic.2020.0013
Related URLs:https://dictionarysociety.com/journal/ (Publisher)
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