Are dictionary definitions for words with multiple meanings ordered based on chronology, hierarchy, or frequency of usage? Is/was there a standard format?

  • 1
    Frequency of usage. Just look at the definition/translation of a simple word with a lot of meanings, e.g. "put". Oct 8 '12 at 5:36
  • @SingerOfTheFall How does that confirm that the order is decided by frequency of usage and not by chronology? Oct 8 '12 at 7:59
  • 2
    It's not necessarily frequency of usage. This is simply an arbitrary policy that the dictionary's editors define. Oct 8 '12 at 8:13

It depends on the dictionary. Some, perhaps most, place the most common use of the word first. The Oxford English Dictionary, 'the definitive record of the English language', places its definitions in the order in which each word is first used. That is to say, the earliest known meanings are given first. As the OED itself explains,

While the headword section of an entry provides generic information about a headword, the sense section explains the headword’s meaning or meanings. The sense section consists of one or more definitions, each with its paragraph of illustrative quotations, arranged chronologically.

  • Your answer is an example of my initial thought, which was, check with the introductory materials of the dictionary, which often explain such policies for their specific edition. There's much good material in the dictionary before a- and aardvark. Finding this introductory material online, though, is sometimes elusive.
    – J.R.
    Oct 8 '12 at 19:03
  • I do find that the OED's Help pages are not as user friendly as they might be. Oct 8 '12 at 19:09
  • @J.R. The "Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language" that I've managed to get my paws on, begins with etymology, pronunciation, language, and foreign sounds charts followed by an all too brief history of the English language as part of an introduction by some dusty academic. It comes with its own manual of style, but no manual. Oct 11 '12 at 5:57
  • @coleopterist: FWIW, your comment prompted me to check the preface materials in my print dictionaries. In one, I found: "The definition appearing first is the one most frequently used. Successive definitions are listed .. in order of declining frequency of use rather than according to semantic evolution." Another said, "Senses are not arranged historically or by frequency of use. Rather, they are ordered analytically, according to central meaning clusters from which related subsenses and additional separate senses may evolve." Methods vary, I suppose; the challenge is in locating it.
    – J.R.
    Oct 11 '12 at 9:04
  • @J.R. Thanks! That confirms Barrie's point. If you can also provide the names of the dictionaries in question, perhaps Barrie can improve his answer even further by including this additional information. Oct 11 '12 at 14:47

Generally words in dictionary definitions are ranked in order of commonality of use or "usualness of meaning".

For a word with a large number of meanings, the top few definitions may be of similar likeliness of meaning in common use, but definitions towards the bottom of the list will be ones which are rarely used and/or whose meanings are obscure or archaic.

A look through a number of dictionaries will show that there are certainly exceptions to this "rule", usually with less common meanings being out of 'order', although this may be a matter of the personal perceptions of the compiler.


Just a small addendum to the discussion: Merriam-Webster dictionaries and Dictionary.com use historical ordering of definitions. From M-W: "The order of senses within an entry is historical: the sense known to have been first used in English is entered first."

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