I submitted a research paper where I defined a word according to the definition provided by Oxford English Dictionary. The word has multiple definitions; this one actually has "1," "2.a," 2.b," and several others. For the purposes of the research paper, I used the definition found in 2.a. The reviewer who reviewed my paper made a comment suggesting that I would need to add additional clarification to the footnote given that the definition I used was the "2.a" definition and not the "1" definition.

My questions are: Is the 2.a definition any less [reliable/accurate] than the 1 definition (that would warrant me having to add such clarification)? In the event I do add such clarification (which I'm sure I will end up doing), is there a word used to reference the "secondary" definition (the 2.a definition) to distinguish it from the "primary" one? Thanks in advance.

  • Did you say that this was "a definition" of the term in question, or "the definition" of the term? Or did you just say you were defining the term in a specific way for the purposes of your paper (in which case you're free to choose whatever definition you like and citation of the dictionary can be avoided by just not using their specific wording of the definition)?
    – The Photon
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 15:35
  • 1
    You might rather ask a slightly different question on Academia Stackexchange than worry about the answer to this question.
    – The Photon
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 15:36
  • 2
    I think since you're specifically and explicitly defining the meaning you want for your context, it's totally irrelevant whether it's the most or least common meaning associated with that word. After all, it's possible there's no single English word with the exact meaning you want, in which case it would still be perfectly acceptable for you to define / assign that exact meaning purely for the current context (your paper). People do this all the time. Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 15:39
  • Thanks. To answer your first question– in my paper, I wrote "dairy is defined as blah blah blah" and then in the footnote is where I cite to the specific URL (which actually shows all the different definitions listed).
    – Keith
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 15:40
  • 2
    @Keith: I think you make a rod for your own back by providing a link to an actual dictionary definition of the term you're choosing to define yourself. I personally wouldn't have a problem if you wrote For the purposes of this paper, I define "lactish" as meaning concerned with the production of milk, butter, and cheese (there is no such word, obviously! :) Let your picky readers fulminate over your use of first person singular instead of your neologism! Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 15:55
  • It's a good job the word wasn't 'run', 'go', 'take', 'stand', or the old favourite, 'set' - thesprucecrafts.com/which-word-has-the-most-definitions-4077796 All the definitions of a word are equally valid, and if you need clarification more than just context, then provide it.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 16:24
  • 2
    Thanks all. I ended up changing the language to: "One of the definitions for dairy is ...." (to suggest that there are other definitions).
    – Keith
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 16:39
  • Any dictionary definition is acceptable per se, but context may determine that some are disfavoured or even prohibited. And certainly care needs to be taken when loss of clarity might well occur. // If using a word intending a sense that is unusual or sounds unusual in context, Gricean maxims insist that clarification is necessary (eg "in the 'all descendants of Shem' sense"). Stipulative definitions are often essential ('Define your terms'). // Note that ... Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 17:43
  • 2
    a dictionary's first-listed definition is different in different dictionaries (see 'historical dictionary', which dictionaries list senses in order of historical appearance ... but note that other dictionaries also disagree on what are the most common senses). Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 17:43
  • 2
    If a word has 10+ definitions, it's likely that the last few will be obscure uses that most readers wouldn't expect. The dictionary might even label them as "archaic". But normally you'd expect the first 2-3 to be common enough that the specific order is not very significant.
    – Barmar
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 21:12
  • And if it only has 2-3 definitions, usually they'll all be well known unless specified otherwise. There's no particular reason to think the second is less "valid" than the first.
    – Barmar
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 21:13

1 Answer 1


In most dictionaries, the closer a definition is to the top of the entry, the more common it is in usage (or at least according to the opinions of the editors). However, this is not the case with the Oxford English Dictionary, which orders definitions chronologically. Assuming neither one is marked as obsolete (and the entry is up-to-date for that to be accurate), both of those senses are used in modern English and neither is "better" than the other, though one might be more used than the other. For your purposes, however, one definition is likely more relevant to what you're talking about and that's why you chose to reference it.

Back when Oxford had a freely available online version of NOAD/ODE called ODO, their website said the following:

The OED is a historical dictionary, with a structure that is very different from that of a dictionary of current English such as ODO. In ODO, only present-day senses are covered and we describe the most common meanings or senses first, making it easy for you to find guidance on today’s language quickly. For each word in the OED, on the other hand, the senses are dealt with in chronological order according to the quotation evidence. This way the senses with the earliest quotations appear first, and the senses which have developed more recently appear further down the entry – like a ‘family tree’ for each word. Also, unlike current English dictionaries, senses are never removed from the OED. For example, if a word developed with a particular sense in the nineteenth century but has more recently changed to mean something quite different, the OED will show you both senses.

  • 1
    This is indeed the right answer to the question, as formulated in the title, but the more apt response to the OP's actual problem, as explained in the body of the question, is the one given in @FumbleFinger's comment: one may, and often needs to, stipulatively define a word for the purposes of a particular discussion, and when one does that, it is unnecessary, and potentially confusing, to quote any dictionary definitions. Incidentally, it is not clear why this question is migrated to the meta-site (it is not a request for sources, but for their interpretation).
    – jsw29
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 15:13
  • @jsw29 "Maybe this should have stayed on the main site" is something that only occurred to me 30 seconds before I submitted the answer. I don't mind moving my answer over to the main site if that's what we decide.
    – Laurel Mod
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 19:31
  • @Laurel While this is a question that should be of interest to any ELU participant, it is not particular to the English language or even dictionaries that are in English. It is at best asking for the meanings of 'primary', 'secondary', or even 'entry'. While normally questions about references are considered 'meta' on ELU, I would not be against it appearing on main... but it might not go well with some of our more enthusiastic close voters.
    – Mitch
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 20:59

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .