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I am trying to improve my vocabulary. I often google the meaning of a word; and in the Google definition of, say, a word x it says:- y,z. I google the definition of y, it says in the meaning:- x,z; and when I look for the meaning of the definition of 'z':- x,y.

What's up with this circulation?

An example in google search:- define perplexed -> baffled -> bewildered, perplexed.

bewildered -> perplexed

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    Try some other dictionaries
    – Jim
    Jun 12 at 6:15
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    |*Also, why use the word say 'notion' when I can always use the word 'belief'?*| Because "notion" and "belief" are not 100% synonymous. A notion can refer to a concept, an idea, a theory it can also stand for "belief" but less so if we are talking about religion, myths, superstitions. Once you enter those realms, the noun "belief" makes more sense and is easier for the reader to understand. A belief does not require facts, it is more personal. A notion often relies on facts.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 12 at 10:19
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    You think these words have the same meaning, but you're ignoring their usage and nuances. Good dictionaries will also provide example sentences to help clarify and explain differences, but the best tool for broadening one's vocabulary is reading extensively.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 12 at 10:22
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    Some dictionaries just list the similar words in meaning in the definition of some words (which are mostly not an absolute synonym as there are nuances between words, so a better term would be a near-synonym). Absolute synonym is a rare concept and it usually happens in dialectal differences (like different names of an animal, a plant etc.). More comprehensive dictionaries like OED invest in detailed definitions and try to list all senses of a word with example sentences.
    – ermanen
    Jun 12 at 10:57
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    The words may be similar but do not have the same semantic traits. English has Germanic and Latin roots. That accounts for some of this "duplication", which really isn't. . Also, in the 18th c. there was a concerted effort to create new "Latinate" words due to all the developments in science. etc.
    – Lambie
    Jun 12 at 19:03

4 Answers 4

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I often google the meaning of a word; and in the Google definition of, say, a word x it says:- y,z. I google the definition of y, it says in the meaning:- x,z; and when I look for the meaning of the definition of 'z':- x,y.

This is the test of a good dictionary: a good dictionary will not give “word x is y,z" and "y = x,z”. A good dictionary will explain the word’s origin and use a sentence or more to explain the meaning and then give several examples, with context, to show the word in various uses and meanings. It is impossible to over-emphasise the importance of context in English: the same word in one context may be an insult, and in another the greatest praise.

There are, in fact, very, very few words in English that really have the same meaning in all contexts. The general guidance is “If the word or phrase is different, then the meaning, or at least the nuance, will be different.” For example, the words kingly, regal, and monarchical may all seem to mean “in the manner of a royal ruler”, but, when put in a sentence will create a different image in the mind.

This is one reason why English is so popular – it allows subtlety of meaning and ideas to be expressed more precisely or, when needed, less precisely.

Your example is good.

perplexed -> baffled -> bewildered

If I am perplexed – the image is of my being intelligent and thoughtful, but puzzled and at a loss to see a solution.

If I am baffled – the image is of my having no idea about a solution and am somewhat confused. The word is now a little old-fashioned, and so the nuance is that I am middle-class.

If I am bewildered – the image is of my being so confused by all that is happening that I am not able even to consider a solution.

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  • Hey, thank you! The examples of the meanings in the end; What is the source for that?!
    – Shad
    Jun 12 at 21:53
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    My 70 years of speaking, writing, and reading English.
    – Greybeard
    Jun 13 at 11:09
  • Mad Respect for you. <3
    – Shad
    Jun 13 at 18:07
  • I could not agree more. In fact, as an American who went on to learn a teeny-tiny bit of Japanese, I often (now) find myself understanding the "strange spellings" of English words to be less of a random "accumulation of exceptions" and more-so a "roadmap of etymologies" by which we're essentially defining a 'kanji' system that demarcates most/all of our Greek/Latin/French/etc loanwords. Jun 14 at 6:06
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English is a rich language which has acquired a huge vocabulary over the centuries. According to Oxford Languages, perplex comes from the Latin with the sense of 'tangle', baffle comes from the French with the sense 'deceive', and bewilder originally had the sense of 'go completely astray'. People just started using these words several hundred years ago because they found them useful and expressive.

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Every definition must use words that are themselves defined. Because the lexicon is finite, the process ultimately must be circular. (The term "bootstrapping" is sometimes used for this issue.) It is unfortunate that the circularity was so tight in the example that you provided, but you'd have to ask the people who wrote that dictionary why they made it so.

By the way, dictionaries sometimes include definitions that do not consist of synonymous expressions. This often occurs with function words, which frequently lack good synonyms. You can see that, for example, in many of the entries for Merriam-Webster's definition of "for".

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    To convince the OP that this is a 'must'. Assume there are a finite number of words, called the lexicon. Also assume a definition of a word is made of a list of words from the same lexicon. Let there be an arrow from one word in the lexicon to another if this other word appears in the definition of the first word. Since the lexicon is finite, any path (a sequence of arrows) from -any- word in the lexicon -must- end in a cycle (must eventually point to a word already met previously on the path. This is true of any language, not just English.
    – Mitch
    Jun 12 at 20:24
  • @Mitch Yes, the situation can be modelled with a directed graph. Jun 12 at 21:24
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Your question is founded on a false premise: "perplexed" and "baffled" have very similar meanings, but they are not identical. The various dictionaries available don't agree perfectly on the differences, but here is a proof of concept from a few different dictionaries; the words don't have identical semantics according to any of the dictionaries.

The Oxford Learner's

This dictionary defines "perplexed" as "confused and anxious because you are unable to understand something; showing this", and it defines "baffle" as "to confuse somebody completely; to be too difficult or strange for somebody to understand or explain". Note the anxiety of "perplexed" that is absent in "baffled".

The Cambridge English

This dictionary defines "perplexed" as "confused, because something is difficult to understand or solve", and it defines "baffle" as "to cause someone to be completely unable to understand or explain something". Note the fact that you must be perplexed by something that is difficult, whereas you can be baffled by something regardless of whether it has some inherent difficulty.

Merriam-Webster

This dictionary defines "perplexed" as "filled with uncertainty: PUZZLED", and it defines "baffled" as "extremely confused or puzzled". I actually disagree with its definition of "perplexed", but assuming for the sake of argument that it is correct, notice that one may be baffled by being merely confused (note the "or" in the definition), whereas one must be puzzled (that is, one must be confused by a problem one is trying to solve) in ordered to be perplexed.

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