I want to know if the definitions grouped in a dictionary are stated in unequivocal language.

e.g. Wax has the following definition:

[literary] become larger or stronger. his anger waxed

– Is only one sense of "stronger" meant here?


became more intense.

I ask both to improve my use of dictionaries, and because I will find it baffling if an English language learner needs to work out which single meaning a term appearing in a definition has.

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    What is the question here? The meaning of stronger or the meaning of wax? Both can be found by reference to a dictionary. – Roaring Fish Dec 31 '15 at 9:31
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    Just a heads-up. You received 2 close-votes and 1 downvote. Please edit your question focusing on English Language and its Usage. – user140086 Dec 31 '15 at 9:34
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    Then go to a dictionary, provide the entry for 'stronger', and explain what part of it you find hard to understand. – Roaring Fish Dec 31 '15 at 10:51
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    Essentially, yes: you will often need to make a judgement-call on which sense or senses of certain words in a dictionary definition applies or apply. Dictionaries for learners exist, which probably take more care with their word-choice (and include fewer headwords). But eventually, a perfect dictionary cannot exist (words being infinitely polysemous) and no dictionary of reasonable size could cater for all denotations even. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 31 '15 at 11:25
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    @EdwinAshworth oh ok, judgment is called for - and yes it can be polysemous !! – concerned Dec 31 '15 at 11:26

A dictionary isn't a logical program that is compiled to a feature perfect executable of a native language speaker. There may be mistakes in the entries (a compiler error), and there may be co- or o-missions in definitions and unresolved expansions or circularities (run-time or feature problems). A dictionary lives in the context of native language speakers, it does not allow a non-native speaker to reproduce meaning. Note the definition of 'a' (at least at one place) which uses 'a'.

So the direct answer is that, yes, maybe more than one sense of 'stronger' could be meant. (I'm not sure which other meanings of stronger you're thinking of). Another relevant word is 'increased'. It's all a metaphor of 'waxing', of the moon on its way to becoming full. And there, 'waxing' is probably a metaphor for something earlier. (from etymonline, it seems 'waxing' has always meant something like increasing, cognate with 'augment')

  • thanks for directly answering the question, though i'm not sure what you are referring to with the comment about its metaphorical content – concerned Dec 31 '15 at 16:07
  • Do you ask about the metaphor of waxing or about metaphor in general? – Mitch Dec 31 '15 at 16:08
  • in the other question i was asking cos i was interested in 'metaphor' (in general, outside its alleged analogy with moustaches), but like i suggested - i don't immediately see the relevance of what you added on it here (either to my example, or the question that prompted it) – concerned Dec 31 '15 at 16:10
  • OK. So both I guess. waxing = moon increasing in size. by analogy 'waxing' is used often for anything increasing (with the possible connotation that it may go in cycles, decreasing too). In general, metaphor comes from people using a word slightly outside of its strict definition. A horse is an animal with a certain look. A sawhorse has a vague similarity to that shape. It could have been called a saw dog or saw elephant, but most likely not a saw bucket. I, on the other hand, don't understand your reference to mustache though! – Mitch Dec 31 '15 at 16:16
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    No problem. You can't assume that everybody has read everything. Also, just make it easier for others. – Mitch Dec 31 '15 at 16:43

Bear in mind that words are always in context. As our English gets better so we understand more easily which, of the possible meanings of any given word, is the right one. In your example 'wax' is being linked with 'anger'. So 'become stronger', in its sense of 'become more intense', is a possible translation for 'wax'. Of course, 'become stronger' can be used in contexts when 'wax' would not be an alternative ("As he recovered from his illness he became stronger").

  • If you consider it appropriate to do so, would you (or @Mitch) consider adding a sentence or two to your answer(s) that includes "wax and wane"? It might help provide a fuller understanding of this use of "wax" for the OP. – Mark Hubbard Dec 31 '15 at 16:15
  • +1. In other words, this definition is trying to help you understand occurrences you might encounter, but apparently not to help you write new sentences with this word. – ruakh Jan 1 '16 at 11:20
  • @MarkHubbard - the OP is not especially interested in the meaning and use of 'wax'. The focus, as I have understood it, is on how dictionary definitions communicate meaning (especially to someone for whom the meaning of all English words is not clear). – Dan Jan 1 '16 at 18:59

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