Lexical Meaning (Words)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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"One common way to explain the meaning of a word ( lexical meaning)," says Christopher Hutton, "is by the identification of a synonym, that is, a word with the same or a similar meaning".

 Alex Belomlinsky/Getty Images

Lexical meaning refers to the sense (or meaning) of a word (or lexeme) as it appears in a dictionary. Also known as semantic meaning, denotative meaning, and central meaning. Contrast with grammatical meaning (or structural meaning).

The branch of linguistics that's concerned with the study of lexical meaning is called lexical semantics.

Examples and Observations

"There is no necessary congruity between the structural and lexical meanings of a word. We can observe a congruity of these meanings, for example, in the word cat, where both structural and lexical meaning refer to an object. But often the structural and lexical meanings of a word act in different or even diametrically opposite directions. For example, the structural meaning of protection refers to an object, while its lexical meaning refers to a process; and conversely, the structural meaning of (to) cage refers to a process, while its lexical meaning refers to an object.

"The tension between structural and lexical meanings I call the antinomy between grammar and the lexicon...

"The essential aspect of the interrelation between structural and lexical meanings is that lexical meanings constrain grammatical rules. Yet, in stating the laws of grammar we must abstract from the lexical constraints on the rules of grammar of individual languages. The laws of grammar cannot be stated in terms of the lexical constraints on the rules of grammar of individual languages. These requirements are captured in the following law:

Law of Autonomy of Grammar From the Lexicon
The meaning of the structure of a word or a sentence is independent of the meanings of the lexical signs that instantiate this structure."

(Sebastian Shaumyan, Signs, Mind, and Reality. John Benjamins, 2006)

The Sense Enumeration Model

"The most orthodox model of lexical meaning is the monomorphic, sense enumeration model, according to which all the different possible meanings of a single lexical item are listed in the lexicon as part of the lexical entry for the item. Each sense in the lexical entry for a word is fully specified. On such a view, most words are ambiguous. This account is the simplest conceptually, and it is the standard way dictionaries are put together. From the perspective of a typed theory, this view posits many types for each word, one for each sense. . . .

"While conceptually simple, this approach fails to explain how some senses are intuitively related to each other and some are not. . . . Words or, perhaps more accurately, word occurrences that have closely related senses are logically polysemous, while those that do not receive the label accidentally polysemous or simply homonymous. . . . Bank is a classic example of an accidentally polysemous word . . .. On the other hand, lunch, bill, and city are classified as logically polysemous." (Nicholas Asher, Lexical Meaning in Context: A Web of Words. Cambridge University Press, 2011)

The Encyclopedic View

"Some, though by no means all, semanticists have proposed that lexical meanings are encyclopedic in character (Haiman 1980; Langacker 1987). The encyclopedic view of lexical meaning is that there is no sharp dividing line between that part of a word's meaning which is 'strictly linguistic' (the dictionary view of lexical meaning) and that part which is 'nonlinguistic knowledge about the concept.' While this dividing line is difficult to maintain, it is clear that some semantic properties are more central to a word's meaning than others, particularly those properties that apply to (almost) all and only the instances of the kind, which are intrinsic to the kind, and which are conventional knowledge of (almost) all of the speech community (Langacker 1987: 158-161)." (William Croft, "Lexical and Grammatical Meaning." Morphologie / Morphology, ed. by Geert Booij et al.  Walter de Gruyter, 2000)

The Lighter Side of Lexical Meaning

Special Agent Seeley Booth: I'm glad that you apologized to the Canadian. I'm proud of you, Bones.

Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan: I didn't apologize.

Special Agent Seeley Booth: I thought . . ..

Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan: The word "apology" derives from the Ancient Greek "apologia," which means "a speech in defense." When I defended what I said to him, you told me that wasn't a real apology.

Special Agent Seeley Booth: Why don't you think of a word that means you feel bad for making someone else feel bad?

Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan: Contrite.

Special Agent Seeley Booth: Ah!

Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan: From the Latin "contritus" meaning "crushed by a sense of sin."

Special Agent Seeley Booth: There. That's it. Contrite. Okay, I'm happy that you contrited to the Canadian.

(David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel in "The Feet on the Beach." Bones, 2011)