lexeme (words) Definition, Etymology and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A sheep
The word sheep is a lexeme.

 David Tipling/Getty Images

In linguistics, a lexeme is the fundamental unit of the lexicon (or word stock) of a language. Also known as a lexical unit, lexical item, or lexical word. In corpus linguistics, lexemes are commonly referred to as lemmas.

A lexeme is often--but not always--an individual word (a simple lexeme or dictionary word, as it's sometimes called). A single dictionary word (for example, talk) may have a number of inflectional forms or grammatical variants (in this example, talks, talked, talking).

A multiword (or composite) lexeme is a lexeme made up of more than one orthographic word, such as a phrasal verb (e.g., speak uppull through), an open compound (fire enginecouch potato), or an idiom (throw in the towelgive up the ghost).

The way in which a lexeme can be used in a sentence is determined by its word class or grammatical category.


From the Greek, "word, speech"

Examples and Observations

  • "A lexeme is a unit of lexical meaning, which exists regardless of any inflectional endings it may have or the number of words it may contain. Thus, fibrillate, rain cats and dogs, and come in are all lexemes, as are elephant, jog, cholesterol, happiness, put up with, face the music, and hundreds of thousands of other meaningful items in English. The headwords in a dictionary are all lexemes."
    (David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Specifications of Lexemes

"[A] lexeme is a linguistic item defined by the following specifications, which make up what is called the lexical entry for this item:

  • its sound form and its spelling (for languages with a written standard);
  • the grammatical category of the lexeme (nounintransitive verb, adjective, etc.);
  • its inherent grammatical properties (for some languages, e.g. gender);
  • the set of grammatical forms it may take, in particular, irregular forms;
  • its lexical meaning.
  • "These specifications apply to both simple and composite lexemes."
    (Sebastian Löbner, Understanding Semantics. Routledge, 2013)

The Meanings of Lexemes

"Definitions are an attempt to characterize the 'meaning' or sense of a lexeme and to distinguish the meaning of the lexeme concerned from the meanings of other lexemes in the same semantic field, for example, the 'elephant' from other large mammals. There is a sense in which a definition characterizes the 'potential' meaning of a lexeme; the meaning only becomes precise as it is actualized in a context. Since the division of the meaning of a lexeme into senses is based on the variation of meaning perceived in different contexts, a tension exists in lexicography between the recognition of separate senses and the potentiality of meaning found in definitions. This may well account in large part for the divergence between similar-sized dictionaries in the number of senses recorded and in consequent differences of definition."
(Howard Jackson and ‎Etienne Zé Amvela, Words, Meaning and Vocabulary: An Introduction to Modern English Lexicology, 2nd ed. Continuum, 2005)

Invariable and Variable Lexemes

"In many cases, it makes no difference whether we take a syntactic or a lexical perspective. Lexemes such as the and and are invariable, i.e., there is only one word corresponding to each. Also invariable are lexemes like efficiently: although more efficiently is in some respects like harder, it is not a single word, but a sequence of two, and hence efficiently and more efficiently are not forms of a single lexeme. Variable lexemes, by contrast, are those which have two or more forms. Where we need to make clear that we are considering an item as a lexeme, not a word, we will represent it in bold italics. Hard, for example, represents the lexeme which has hard and harder--and also hardest--as its forms. Similarly are and is, along with be, been, being, etc., are forms of the lexeme be. . . . A variable lexeme is thus a word-sized lexical item considered in abstraction from grammatical properties that vary depending on the syntactic construction in which it appears."
(Rodney Huddleston and Geoffroy Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Pronunciation: LECK-seem

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "lexeme (words) Definition, Etymology and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/lexeme-words-term-1691225. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). lexeme (words) Definition, Etymology and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/lexeme-words-term-1691225 Nordquist, Richard. "lexeme (words) Definition, Etymology and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/lexeme-words-term-1691225 (accessed June 3, 2023).