In an earlier post on this blog, we wrote about word knowledge limbo, citing research that shows that our brains don’t travel directly from “not knowing” a word to “knowing it.” In this post, we’ll talk about what it means when you do finally get there. What does it mean to know a word?

Some might say: it means you know its definition. So let’s look up definition in the Dictionary and see what that tells us about “knowing.” We all know what definition means, don’t we?

The Dictionary page for definition shows that there are two types. As a type of sharpness, definition means “clarity of outline,” as in “The artist’s confident charcoal lines gave definition to his drawing of rocks.” The other type of definition the Dictionary refers to is a type of explanation or, as the Dictionary puts it, “a concise explanation of the meaning of a word or phrase or symbol.” Seems straightforward enough.

But then the Dictionary goes on to give us the option of looking at the seven types of this kind of definition. There’s contextual definition, dictionary definition, explicit definition, ostensive definition, recursive definition, redefinition, and stipulative definition. Wow, right? Maybe we don't know definition as well as we thought we did.

And in a way, this is the point. What does it mean to "know" a word? Not a whole lot. Sure, you may have a full and flexible ability to recognize it in speech and writing, as well as to use it in your own oral and written communications, but there's always a possibility that someone has invented a new use for that word that hasn't made its way down to you yet. Or that there are technical meanings of the word you simply have never been exposed to. What’s frustrating about language (and also awe-inspiring, in a staring-into-the-Grand-Canyon kind of way) is how deep it goes. Language is unknowably large and changing all the time. If you think about it too much, you can start to experience a kind of vertigo, where you feel it to be a small miracle we are able to say things like “Pass the salt” and have anyone know what we mean. But, of course, we do. 

Go back for a minute to the other sense of definition — the idea of sharpness of line or shape. Aristotle, who invented definitions as part of a system of classification, used them to draw lines between words. His definitions said what the word was like (its genus) and how it was different (differentia). In other words, he was attempting to make sense of language that in actuality we learn as if stumbling forward in the dark

And this is the task of every part of as well — the Dictionary, our Vocabulary Lists, word family diagrams, usage example trackers, word explanations beyond traditional definitions (these pop up when you play the Challenge), and the Challenge itself, which mimics the process by which your brain learns words naturally by exposing you to words many times in many different ways. Maybe you can never know a word all the way, but we will hold your hand as you try.

So keep playing, keep learning, and, when you experience moments of word knowledge vertigo, try not to look down.