Paired or Field Definition

Occasionally the sense of one word or concept is intimately tied to that of a second (or of several) so that the terms can be defined only by reference to one another. Such words comprise a field of meaning; for example, think of the titles designating commissioned rank in the United States Army: captain cannot be understood without reference to first lieutenant and major—the ranks on either side—and these in turn imply second lieutenant and lieutenant colonel and so on through the entire series of grades. In this paragraph a scholar defines the two kinds of source material available to historians:

Written and oral sources are divided into two kinds: primary and secondary. A primary source is the testimony of an eyewitness, or of a witness by any other of the senses, or of a mechanical device like the dictaphone—that is, of one who or that which was present at the events of which he or it tells (hereafter called simply eye-A secondary source is the testimony of anyone who is not an is, of one who was not present at the events of which he tells. A primary source must thus have been produced by a contemporary of the events it narrates. It does not, however, need to be original in the legal sense of the word original—that is, the very document (usually the first written draft) whose contents are the subject of discussion—for quite often a later copy or a printed edition will do just as well; and in the case of the Greek and Roman classics seldom are any but later copies available.

Louis Gottschalk

Defining by Etymology and Semantic History Another way of getting at the meaning of a word is through its root meaning (the etymology) and the changes that meaning has undergone (the semantic history). In the following paragraph the concept of a university is defined by returning to an older name for the institution and exploring the implications of the term:

If I were asked to describe as briefly and popularly as I could, what a University was, I should draw my answer from its ancient designation of a Studium Generate or "School of Universal Learning." This description implies the assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot;—from all parts; else, how will you find professors and students for every department of knowledge? and in one spot, else, how can there be any school at all? Accordingly, in its simple and rudimental form, it is a school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners from every quarter. Many things are requisite to complete and satisfy the idea embodied in this description; but such as this a university seems to be in its essence, a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country.

John Henry Newman

While relatively easy, using etymologies and older meanings has limitations. You must use dictionaries cautiously. The etymology of a word is not necessarily its "proper" sense. Word meanings change and it cannot be argued that the contemporary sense of a word is somehow wrong because it has strayed from the original. Nor do dictionary definitions tell the whole story. No matter how sensitive and thorough, they have to exclude many subtleties of meaning.

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Responses

  • giuditta
    What is the definition of field writing?
    7 years ago

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