I always find it difficult to discuss the meaning of a word because I don't really have a definite meaning of word in my head.

Cook refers to the verb (to cook) but it can also refer to the noun (a cook). Would you say cook is one word with multiple meanings or that the verb and the noun are separate words? Is a word simply the arrangement of the letters?

  • 2
    Guess what? Dictionary makers take different positions on this. There are clear cases of both, and an enormous body of cases that fall between them. It's your language; you decide. As long as the right sounds come out, nobody cares whether you think bear and bare are the same word, just like nobody cares whether you think the verb bear has some relationship with the noun bear. Most people think that pulley and pull are related, for instance. Nov 19, 2013 at 0:38
  • It's a good question, and there's no good answer.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 4, 2016 at 2:04
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    This is a deeply philosophical question about the ontology of words. Many (if not most) syntacticians prefer to call words lexical items and use syntactic category (among other things) to individuate them. Thus, cook (qua noun) is taken to be a distinct lexical item from cook qua verb. Drastically different (and unrelated) meaning is also a criterion for distinctness; for example, bank (qua riverside) is taken to be a distinct lexical item from bank (qua financial institution).
    – DyingIsFun
    Jul 4, 2016 at 2:09
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    of possible interest is Dixon and Aikhenvald's volume on the topic
    – user31341
    Jul 4, 2016 at 3:27

4 Answers 4


Where a word has the same form for both the verb and the noun, a dictionary will normally give separate entries for each, or, at least, differentiate between them in a single entry.

Verbs and nouns themselves usually have different forms, but these are not entered separately in a dictionary. You don’t look up the plural noun cooks. You look up the singular cook. You don’t look up the past tense of the verb cooked. You look up the basic form cook.

The form of a word you look up in a dictionary is called a lexeme (also known as a lemma). The word as it occurs in a text, or the word that a word processing program counts, is called an orthographic word (or a token).


This is a deeply philosophical question about the ontology of words. Specifically, it is a question about the individuation conditions of words. This question, sadly, has no answer given that we use the word "word" very inconsistently (see below).

Many syntacticians prefer to talk about lexical items rather than words, given the nebulousness of the concept word. Lexical items (on at least one use of the term) are individuated by syntactic category (among other things).

Thus, cook (qua noun) is taken to be a distinct lexical item from cook (qua verb).

Drastically different (and etymologically unrelated) meaning is also a criterion for distinctness of lexical items. For example, bank (qua riverside) is taken to be a distinct lexical item from bank (qua financial institution), since these two uses have radically different meanings and etymologies.

The problem with discussing the individuation conditions of words themselves is that English speakers' use of the word "word" is very inconsistent. In different contexts, we use the word "word" to pick out different things, with different individuation conditions. Sometimes we use "word" to refer to phonic-graphic types (that is, general arrangements of sounds and/or letters), sometimes to tokens (that is, particular utterances or inscriptions of these types), sometimes to phonic-graphic types plus meanings, sometimes to phonic-graphic types plus meanings and syntactic categories, and so on. This context-sensitivity of the word "word" is discussed by at least a few of the philosophers who have thought about the ontology of words.

If you are interested in pursuing the (relatively small) literature on the ontology/metaphysics of words, here are a few good papers:

Alward, Peter. “Between the Lines of Age: Reflections on the Metaphysics of Words.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 86 (2005): 172-187.

Bromberger, Sylvan. “What Are Words? Comments on Kaplan (1990), on Hawthorne and Lepore, and on the Issue.” Journal of Philosophy 108, no. 9 (2011): 486-503.

Cappelen, Herman. “Intentions in Words.” Nous 33, no. 1 (1999): 92-102.

Hawthorne, John and Ernest Lepore. “On Words.” Journal of Philosophy 108, no. 9 (2011): 447-485.

Kaplan, David. “Words.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 64 (1990): 93-119.

Kaplan, David. “Words on Words.” Journal of Philosophy 108, no. 9 (2011): 504-529.

McCulloch, Gregory. “Making Sense of Words.” Analysis 51, no. 2 (1991): 73-79.

Stainton, Robert. “Meaning and Reference: Some Chomskyan Themes.” In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Language, edited by E. Lepore and B. C. Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Wetzel, Linda. "On Types and Words." Journal of Philosophical Research 27 (2002):239-265.

Wetzel, Linda. Types and Tokens: On Abstract Objects. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press (2009)


Taking an extreme position in answer to this question, it could even be argued as I think Arimasa Mori does argue regarding the Japanese language and I think is implied by a side of Derrida's view of language, that each an every utterance of a word is a word with meaning which never exists separately to the social and environmental context in which the word is uttered.

Mori argued that in Japanese every utterance of the word "I" the first person singular, was embedded in language of politeness and humility such that, contra the first person in French and other European languages, it was not accompanied by any third person perspective (super-addressee, Bakhtin; aucoustic cap, Freud; Other, Lacan; Generalised Other, Mead) linguistic or intra-psychic, such that the meaning of "I" in Japanese is no more no less than "you for you."

Derrida I think that implies, even while being critical, that while the meaning of words, the philosophy of presence (or co-presence, something else that accompanies words) is a cultural fantasy it is an inevitable or essential one. Husserl's irreal meanings too have an element of fictionality to them, while at the same time they are essential. Perhaps for Husserl meanings are fictions that we must believe in to understand words.


To a first approximation, dictionary listings are normally classified by

(A) word (different homonyms, such as bear1 (to carry etc) and bear2 (the animal)

(B) different intercategorial polysemes, such as


noun ...

verb ...

(C) different polysemes (senses)



  1. A piled-up mass, as of snow or clouds. See Synonyms at heap.

  2. A steep natural incline.

  3. An artificial embankment. ... [AHDEL]

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