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Words have lots of meanings/denotations/dictionary definitions, many connotations and contexts and they have literal meanings and metaphorical ones.

For example, consider the word 'trash'. Literally it is a synonym of 'garbage', 'refuse' 'waste'. But it has secondary meanings of worthless or poor or of loose morals when applied to people.

Or 'crazy'. For myself the first meaning would be the more figurative one (or what I think is figurative) which is 'mixed-up', wild', or 'over-stimulating'. But there is another meaning, a slightly derogatory term for having a mental illness. (Which comes first may be an individual matter).

I am looking for a word (or phrase) that describes the first meaning/denotation you think of when presented with a word.

It is related to

  • literal - but the metaphorical meaning may be the first one.
  • ostensible - but that makes it sound like there's an intention of misdirection
  • canonical - which is closest, but just doesn't sound right (too clinical?)

'On the face of it' is also pretty close, but also doesn't sound right, and evokes 'facade' which like ostensible has too much intention in it.

Maybe it's the first definition offered in a dictionary. Is there a word/shorter phrase for that? (but not OED which is chronological (right?))

Can you suggest some alternatives (or convince me that I've already listed the best one)?

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I found that all answers gave good, relevant words (even though 'denotation' was not the right type of word, it was a useful distinction. I find that 'primary' is the best, since it refers to what you think it means, (rather than the first entry in a dictionary), but the others are usable, too. – Mitch Apr 11 '11 at 13:20
When I hear "primary", I first think of elementary school. – Hot Licks Jul 11 at 2:41
I would say the original meaning of a word and speak of semantic developments. – rogermue Jul 11 at 6:01
@rogermue but that assumes that the primary/canonical/most common usage of the term is the oldest which is not necessarily the case. The original meaning of 'hound' was for any kind of dog, but currently it's primary meaning is for a particular kind of hunting dog. Primary/importance != age – Mitch Jul 11 at 6:26
You only get a clear idea of a word when you see the historical development. – rogermue Jul 11 at 7:18

6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

is it "principal definition" or "first definition" or "main definition?" "

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Or perhaps "primary" definition/meaning? – psmears Apr 10 '11 at 18:14

I would go with a suggestion you made, "canonical." It is pretty common (for me anyway) to hear people talk about canon stories vs. non-canon (ie. most fanfic.)

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I think that the word you're looking for is "Denotation", see if it fits your request.

It's (usually) the first definition you'd see in a dictionary, basically, and the main and primary meaning of a certain word. It's opposed to "Connotation", which are the meanings "given" to that word.

Let's see an example, the word "Dog". (I'll use the dictionary as a support for meanings.)

Denotation: A domesticated carnivorous mammal that typically has a long snout, an acute sense of smell, and a barking, howling, or whining voice. It is widely kept as a pet or for work or field sports.

"This is my dog."

Connotation: (or better, one of the main connotations) - A person regarded as unpleasant, contemptible, or wicked (used as a term of abuse).

"Come out, Michael, you dog!"

EDIT after your edit: The first meaning of "crazy" (denotation) is "being mentally ill". The other ones are given, because silly people behave similarly to the real "crazy" ones. It's not an individual thing.

Even if the first meaning you "got to know" was that one, the real meaning will be the one related to the illness anyway, regardless of your own experience. Otherwise, everyone could change the meaning of any word, causing troubles and misunderstandings.

Don't confuse your own experience/point of view/gut-feeling with the real "meaning-structure" of a word.

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Thanks for that suggestion, I hadn't thought of that. Rather than just 'denotation' I think I am looking for a modifier of denotation, that is a particular kind of denotation, a canonical or typical (or some other suggestion) denotation. – Mitch Apr 10 '11 at 15:59
so I've edited the question for clarity, replacing connotation with denotation. – Mitch Apr 10 '11 at 16:00
Try making an example of a word, so I can try giving you a more appropriate definition. – Alenanno Apr 10 '11 at 16:10
I knew something was missing...added examples. – Mitch Apr 10 '11 at 16:25
N.B. Different dictionaries use different criteria for ordering their entries: there's no universal law that the first definition must be the "primary" one. – Neil Coffey Apr 10 '11 at 19:44

I'd go with "typical" myself.

As in the sense that people typically mean when they use the word.

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After much research and winnowing I think

primary definition

is what captures the idea the best. 'Principle' works, but I find 'primary' is closest. 'Canonical' is exact but is too specific; it would be the right one in a very academic, technical sense. 'Denotation' is close but those are -all- the ostensible meanings, not the primary ones, and connotations are not meanings at all more like inferences or implicatures or contextual correlations.

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My default interpretation of "crazy" is "insane".

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