Say we have two words that essentially mean the same thing that can fit in a sentence. One of the words has a "primary" or first definition that allows it to fit in this sentence. The other word is a "secondary" or second/third definition of the word. Would it be more appropriate to use one over the other? Does it depend on who you are speaking to? I feel like it is better to use a "primary" definition over a "secondary" one.

When I say "primary" and "secondary" I am referring to any dictionary or source to define words that list multiple definitions for a word. Do any of these definitions take priority over others? Or is the first definition the most frequently used?

For example, ignorant can be defined as discourteous/rude:

this ignorant, pin-brained receptionist

What if you just used rude or discourteous instead of ignorant since someone would be more likely to understand that over knowing that ignorant can be defined as discourteous or rude? (Definition - Google <-- define: ignorant)

  • 1
    I think I understand what you are getting at, but do you have an pair of example words?
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Sep 1, 2011 at 18:19
  • @KitΘδς - For example, ignorant can be defined as: Discourteous or rude - this ignorant, pin-brained receptionist. What if you just used rude or discourteous instead of ignorant since someone would be more likely to understand that?
    – KRB
    Sep 1, 2011 at 18:23
  • I don't know whether there's any easy way to tell just by looking at the dictionary. Dictionaries sometimes put the etymologically first meaning first, rather than the most common meaning. For example, in Merriam-Webster's definition of falcoln, the second definition is the only one in use today, even among falconers. Sep 1, 2011 at 18:27
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    In the case of your example "ignorant", I think using it to mean "rude" in anything other than a very informal context would actually be ignorant. That usage is really just sloppy slang, prevalent though it is. Sep 1, 2011 at 21:18

4 Answers 4


Different dictionaries order their definitions in different ways. Some are diachronic, some order by senses, some by frequency of use - as with the Collins Cobuild.

The larger issue is that some words are used in specific situations, usual in certain contexts, which is more important than the order of their meanings as given in dictionaries.

For example: You can use the term "read" to mean "understand," as in, "I read you." This might be uncommon usage in an operating theater, but preferred in aeronautic communications.

Also: Word choice is often strongly influenced by surrounding words. More could be said on this subject if you provide the words and context in question.


If your goal is clarity, there is no doubt that you should use the word whose primary meaning is the one you intend.

Take this example:

John is gay.

You might mean he's cheerful or merry, but the sentence would no be interpreted that way because the primary meaning of "gay" is now "homosexual".

If it's perfectly clear from the context what meaning you intend, and there could never be any confusion amongst your audience, then use whatever word you prefer. But are you guaranteed that your intended audience will be the only audience, ever? And I wouldn't trust any set of readers anyways; something as simple as reading quickly can prevent the context from helping someone interpret something correctly. Your best bet is to assume misunderstanding and to attempt to mitigate it.

As noted in the comments, I would take the order listed by a dictionary with a grain of salt. If the primary meaning of a word for you does not match the dictionary you might want to think carefully about it.


If there is no way the meaning could be unclear, then it's purely a matter of style. The distinction between primary and secondary meanings varies greatly in strength.

Also, it could be that the word whose meaning is listed as primary is actually secondary in the context used and vice-versa for the word whose meaning is listed as secondary. So this can actually result in reduced clarity. For example, that the word "back" has a primary meaning as a part of the body doesn't mean "sit in the back of the bus" can ever be ambiguous or that a word with this as a primary meaning (such as 'rear') would be better.


As others have said, I would heavily discount the order of definitions found in a dictionary.

Ultimately it depends on what you are trying to accomplish, and on how commonly understood the secondary meanings are.

For example, I would (almost) never have guessed that 'ignorant' can also mean discourteous or rude. It apparently does. But had I read it where the writer meant it in that sense, and not in the more conventional meaning, I would have missed the meaning entirely, and likely thought the intention was otherwise. (Those other meanings are not entirely inexplicable, but they're not intuitive. The risk in using slang -- and I'm def a slang fan -- is that proper interpretation usually requires prior exposure, unless it's somehow metaphoric or analogic or otherwise intuitively grokked.)

Words can have overtones, shades of meaning beyond what they mean in the strictest sense or by their fundamental or "primary" meanings. The prominence of the overtones varies from word to word. With some words, especially depending on context, the overtone can be as loud or louder than the primary. (That's how "dog whistle" rhetoric works.) I think you should use whichever word contains the best meaning and produces the most appropriate effect for your purposes.

I often find googling words or example sentences (in quotes) gives a useful if not necessarily better sense of how some words are used.

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