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)?

  • 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, 2011 at 13:20
  • When I hear "primary", I first think of elementary school.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 11, 2015 at 2:41
  • I would say the original meaning of a word and speak of semantic developments.
    – rogermue
    Jul 11, 2015 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, 2015 at 6:26
  • You only get a clear idea of a word when you see the historical development.
    – rogermue
    Jul 11, 2015 at 7:18

8 Answers 8


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

  • 6
    Or perhaps "primary" definition/meaning?
    – psmears
    Apr 10, 2011 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.)

  • But is a word's 'canonical' meaning (1) the meaning closest to its original meaning on entering the language (listed first by OED and M-W) or (2) the one most often encountered in everyday conversation/writing etc (listed first by almost all other readily available online dictionaries, including Lexico)? Mar 7, 2021 at 17:03

I'd go with "typical" myself.

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


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.

  • 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, 2011 at 15:59
  • so I've edited the question for clarity, replacing connotation with denotation.
    – Mitch
    Apr 10, 2011 at 16:00
  • Try making an example of a word, so I can try giving you a more appropriate definition.
    – Alenanno
    Apr 10, 2011 at 16:10
  • I knew something was missing...added examples.
    – Mitch
    Apr 10, 2011 at 16:25
  • 1
    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. Apr 10, 2011 at 19:44

Alenanno's answer is the only one that looks through a linguistic perspective; otherwise there are a total of 1.5 billion English speakers all around the globe, and it is (acceptable) English as long as you are understood by any other English speaker, although a clear distinction between two vernaculars may require a rigorous analysis; and similarly, anybody can write (acceptable) C code as long as it compiles, but thinking like C is another story.

In addition to the denotative meaning (i.e. the denotation of the word; the literal, or the most direct, meaning of the word), a word may have one or more connotative meanings (i.e. connotations of the word; non-literal meanings of the word, indirect meanings –but still associated with the denotative meaning via either emotional or ideological connections-), and one or more figurative meanings (i.e. abstractions of the word, completely dissociated from the denotative meaning, uses of the word as a figure of speech); the denotative meaning and connotative meanings are sometimes referred to as the real or concrete meanings of the word, whereas the figurative meanings are referred to as the abstract meanings of the word. There are mainly five figures of speech: simile, metaphor, hyperbole, personification and synecdoche.

  • I expected the long-range submarine cables to be thinner.

    thinner: having a smaller diameter (the denotative meaning)

  • Her thin body began to sink

    thin body: underweight, skinny (a connotative meaning)

  • Otello was stepping on the thin line between love and jealousy.

    thin line: easily mistakable (a figurative meaning)

  • As the temperature was decreased further towards the absolute zero, the collisions in the simulation space thinned out.

    thin out: become sparser (a figurative meaning)


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.

  • But is a word's 'primary' meaning (1) the meaning closest to its original meaning on entering the language (listed first by OED and M-W) or (2) the one most often encountered in everyday conversation/writing etc (listed first by almost all other readily available online dictionaries, including Lexico)? Mar 7, 2021 at 17:05

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


I would call the "first" meaning the basic meaning. Concerns words that have developed a number of meanings. It is a special study to get the meanings into a logic order. In this respect dictionaries have no feeling at all. But such studies one has to do for oneself. In this field of study I don't like such academic terms as canonical etc. You have to explain in simple words how a new meaning develops from the basic meaning. The paths of semantic development are almost always the same.

  • A word can assume a meaning that is very near the basic meaning or the consequence.

  • Another way is a change of field. A word can have a basic meaning in general language and get new meanings in various other fields as in mathematics, music, arts. This is actually no problem as it is clear whether someone speaks of mathematics or music.

    Of course, there are some special ways of semantic development, but this would be the subject of a book about semantics, eg by Stephen Ullmann.

  • Which book by him?
    – Mitch
    Feb 2, 2016 at 0:05
  • The correct name of the author is Stephen Ullmann. ( I corrected the name.) I can give you only Wikipedia's article on the author, as I have forgotten which book on semantics by him I studied - it was in the sixties.en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Ullmann - I think it was Semantics. His books about semantics are interesting and give a basic understanding of this dicipline. His books were written in the 50s and 60s. I think there have been published other books in the meantime.
    – rogermue
    Feb 2, 2016 at 4:13
  • Semantics is a fascinating aspect of vocabulary and language. Curiously I haven't seen many books about this interesting field. And the Wikipedia article doesn't give much literature. But I must say it is worthwhile studying a book about semantics.
    – rogermue
    Feb 2, 2016 at 15:36

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