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Why a list of the senses of a word is not an encyclopedia article

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Sunday, June 10, 3:55 PM -- There is, I maintain, something wrong with an entry in an encyclopedia that consists merely of a list of the senses of a word. Some people either disagree with, or simply do not understand, this view. So I think it needs some clarification and defense. That's what I'll do today.

I think it is obvious that Wikipedia (like encyclopedias generally) is not in the business simply of giving dictionary definitions. But you might find something paradoxical about this. Isn't the meaning of a word one of the most important pieces of information there is about it? So surely Wikipedia--like encyclopedias generally--must give dictionary definitions. This is a good objection, and replying to it will help to clarify my position.

When we define a word in an encyclopedia entry, we explain what the word means in order to be well-positioned say more about it in the encyclopedia entry. In other words, we have a reason to define the word, and that is to let people know precisely what we are talking about in an encyclopedia entry.

Now consider this: when someone lists a bunch of the senses of a word, giving definitions for each, just as a dictionary would, what purpose does that list of definitions have for an encyclopedia? If it has any purpose at all, as far as I can see, it would be clarify the topics of so many (different, if closely related) encyclopedia articles.

But the word, in many of the senses listed, is simply not the name of a topic for an encyclopedia articles. For example, I might create an article called run that lists the zillion different senses this English word has; one of the senses would be "to operate (e.g., machinery)." Now, if we have an article on machinery operation (and why not??), it surely will not be listed under the word "run"! It will be listed under something relatively precise, like "machinery operation."

So here is my argument. The purpose of writing for an encyclopedia is to create encyclopedia articles. Encyclopedia articles, whatever else they are or are not supposed to be, are not merely dictionary definitions. That is, in order to be proper encyclopedia articles, they will contain some non-semantic ("synthetic," if you will) information about the subject of the article. Now, in an encyclopedia, the main (perhaps not the only) reason to define a word is to clarify the topic of an encyclopedia entry. But the practice of, in place of a proper encyclopedia entry, listing out many different senses of a word has in English, inevitably leads to the listing of very many definitions that are not topics of encyclopedia entries. I think there's no place for that in an encyclopedia.

This is pretty much my main reason for disliking encyclopedia entries that consist just of lists of senses of a word. Of course, when each sense listed is the subject of an article, I suppose, the list might have considerable use. See, for example, liberal.

Well, my time's up.  :-)


I reckon, as you say, that just listing the meanings (or single meaning) of a word is not an encyclopedia article. But i reckon Wikipedia needs some of these anyway. I can think of two cases where this would really enhance the encyclopedia (there may be more):

1. Where an article uses lots of jargon words that might not be known to a reasonably educated person who is not familiar with that field, it would be best to hotlink each jargon word to a definition. If a proper encyclopedia article can be written about the word, then do it, but otherwise just a brief definition for the rest of us would be very useful. (example, paraphyletic and similar words on some of the biology pages.) Alternatively, paraphyletic could link to Biology/strange words and jargon, which would make quite a reasonable encyplopedia article, but then the reader would have to scroll or search down to the word they are interested in, so just having a simple definition page for each word would be more useful to the average reader.

2. As Larry notes, where a word has several meanings, at least one of which could reasonably have an article written on it, it might be worth having a small "glue" page just listing the various meanings, BUT in this case it must have hotlinks to articles for at least some of the different meanings.

Does this make sense? Geronimo Jones

Yes, and I agree with both points. I don't think it contradicts anything I said, however. :-) --LMS

I think the one line definitions are not going away, as the pages with lots of personal views didn't so I propose the same solution: create a wikipedia/Dictionary, where the one liners can go. The definition that merits a encyclopedia entry will have a link to that article. If somebody puts a dictionary entry in the encyclopedia, instead of erase it or just watch in impotence, we can move it to the dictionary. Would that be too terrible, Larry? --AstroNomer

I see the "definition" pages as seeds which will eventually grow full articles. If they don't, it will only be because no contributor felt either moved or competent to expand on the bare bones defintion. Bunches of the articles I have contributed started on someone else's, or my own, conclusory definition page. Why is it so important to discourage this?

One-line definitions are not the subject of this column. I think they have their place. I am complaining about lists of the senses of words, some of which are not the subjects of encyclopedia articles. Those pages are just taking up space; they won't become articles unless someone deletes most of them and replaces them with a proper article or two. --LMS

I recently ran into a problem, and I'm hoping that I handled it correctly. An existing article at w:Nebuchadnezzar redirected to w:Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia. However, there are two other important uses of that term.

  • The first is Morpheus's rogue vessel in "The Matrix" (A google for the term 'nebuchadnezzar' will bring up this as the second hit).
  • The second is a large bottle of champagne, equivalent to 15 normal bottles of champagne. This is a widely used term in wine circles (although most casual drinkers never order more than a magnum - 2 bottles).

I created, a disambiguation page of sorts, which is essentially, as you say, a list of the senses of the word, that provided a link to the babylonian king at the top. However, the other two do not exist as articles in the wikipedia, and I fear that any article on either topic would be a stub at best. While I know that it is more common to apply these stub definitions at the bottom of an article page (as seen in the article for w:Beck), I did not think it would be appropriate to have these definitions on the page for w:Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia, as they are only for the word Nebuchadnezzar. What would your solution be in this case? If I am not clear enough about the problem, let me know. Thank You -DropDeadGorgias 18:53 30 Jun 2003 (UTC)

I like your solution. :) 09:19 1 Jul 2003 (UTC)