There is an elementary distinction in philosophy between the definition of a word and that of the entity (object, concept, emotion, whatever) which the word signifies. Definitions of words are called nominal (a dictionary definition is an example) . Those of entities are called real. (This does not imply that nominal definitions are somehow false.) In practice the distinction between nominal and real definitions often does not matter very much. But sometimes it does. You should always be clear in your own mind whether you are primarily concerned with the word or the entity, and you must make it equally clear to the reader. If you are defining a word, underline it (equivalent to italic type). In the following paragraph, for instance, the writer wishes to make clear how the word history is commonly used:
By its most common definition, the word history now means "the past of mankind." Compare the German word for history—Ges-chichte, which is derived from meaning to happen.
Geschichte is that which has happened. This meaning of the word history is often encountered in such overworked phrases as "all history teaches" or the "lessons of history." Louis Cottschalk
Professor Gottschalk's is a nominal definition. The essayist G. K. Chesterton, on the other hand, in defining marriage is concerned with the institution and not the is, he is making a real definition:
Marriage is not a mere chain upon love as the anarchists say; nor is it a mere crown upon love as the sentimentalists say. Marriage is a fact, an actual human relation like that of motherhood, which has certain human habits and loyalties, except in a few monstrous cases where it is turned to a torture by special insanity and sin. A marriage is neither an ecstasy nor a slavery; it is a commonwealth; it is a separate working and fighting thing like a nation.
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