writing definitions

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Writing definitions isn’t what I love most about lexicography, which might be surprising because I think for many people (both lexicographers and the public) definitions are the first thing that comes to mind when they contemplate what lexicography is all about. Philip Gove said in 1961 that “the principle reason for the existence of a general monolingual dictionary is its definitions. All the art and all the scholarship and all the scientific method that the editors can command are required to study meanings and write definitions” (Word Study XXXVII. (Oct. 1961), p. 4).

But what primarily appeals to me about lexicography is systematizing words and tracking down citations. I suppose sense analysis comes in third place, with writing definitions coming in fourth. What, did I back into lexicography through the gift shop since I’m not crazy for definitions? Who knows.

But in the course of my Mixed Blessings project, I have to write a whole lot of definitions, and I’m learning to appreciate the intricacies of the task. I was working on a definition the other day for the portmanteau word jewitarian (Jew + Unitarian).

For this term, there are two senses. One is a non-religious Jew or a secular Jew. The second is a Jew who is involved to one degree or another with a Unitarian Universalist church. And there’s probably some overlap since you can be in a UU church without really holding any what you might call “religious” beliefs.

My first idea for the definition was to go with “a non-religious Jew,” but this won’t work very well for a Jew who regularly attends a UU church. Even though you don’t have to be “religious” to attend a UU church, it still counts as a religion. So what should this definition be so it can encompass both these subsenses?

A bit of careful thinking teased out a possibility: “a Jew who is not religious with regard to Judaism.” This would allow for either a Jew with no religion at all or a Jew with a religious expression through the UU church.

A format I’m experimenting with for Mixed Blessings is to pair up an analytical definition with one or more illustrative examples. So the current definition for jewitarian is “A Jew who does not have a strong attachment to the Jewish religion” and the illustrative examples are “a Jew who is not religious” and “a Jew who attends a UU church.” I’m trying to strike a balance between a definition that is crisp and correct and some examples that help the reader get a good idea of what people mean when they use this word.

And of course if someone wants a master class in how people use the word, then they can read through the quotations and contemplate for themselves the same raw data that I used to formulate the definition and the examples.

The current draft of my entry for jewitarian is shown below for your delectation. Enjoy!

sample dictionary entry for jewitarian