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The Lexicon: What is a Word?

In layman’s terms, the lexicon is a list of all the words in a language. It is constantly evolving, gaining new words, losing old words, and even changing the form and meaning of current words (e.g. "funner" as the comparative of fun becoming acceptable). But layman’s term "words" is not entirely accurate in describing the lexicon. Afterall, if the lexicon was just the words, then we would not need to say lexicon, since “vocabulary” would work perfectly well. Linguists describe the lexicon as an abstract object; it is a set of all the basic forms of the words in a language, stored in the minds of the speakers (Jezek, 2016, p. 2). A basic form of a word is called its lexeme. For the word "run," then the past tense is "ran," the future tense is "will run," the past perfect is "had ran," and the present progressive is "running," constituting the forms of the lexeme "run." Therefore, a lexeme is essentially the unconjugated form of a verb, singular form of a noun, or the absolute (not -er/-est) form of an adjective (Jezek, 2016, pp. 22-23). It is the lexicologist’s job to work out what a lexeme is and what its meaning is. This is much different from the lexicographer.

Figure 1: Dictionaries are compiled by lexicographers (n.d.).

So what is a lexicographer? Well, rather simply, “lexicography is the oldest subdiscipline of linguistics. The lexicographer deals with the compilation of dictionaries” (Klein, 2015, p. 937). So the lexicologist studies what a word is and what words mean, while the lexicographer takes those words and compiles them and their definitions in one place – the dictionary. A lexicologist is typically working at a university, while a lexicographer works for the dictionary they compile for. Lexicographers will not only study meaning, but also their target audience, such as a dictionary for college students, elementary-level children, or travelers who need a pocket-sized dictionary (Liden, 2022). Once the lexicographer knows their audience’s needs, they can go about writing dictionary entries more effectively.

What are words?

A lexeme is the “base form,” and the forms are conjugations, plural, or comparative and superlative forms. Take the word "cat" for example. The lexeme would be cat because that is the most basic form without any changes or suffixes. The plural "cats" would be a form of that lexeme, and so would something like "kitty" as a term of endearment. All of these words are organized under the same lexeme in our mental lexicon, namely "cat." A different example is "chair." The lexeme would be "chair," and the plural form "chairs" with the meaning being, “a slightly elevated platform for sitting on with a back to lean on.” To contrast that with a similar example, take "the department chair," as in, “a professor who completes administrative duties.” The word "chair" is a noun, and therefore can be modified by an adjective, such as, “the comfy chair.” But one cannot say, “the department comfy chair.” Clearly in this example, the "chair" at the end of "the department chair" is not the same as a literal chair. It is grammatical to say, “the diligent department chair,” which indicates that the whole phrase "department chair" can be modified by an adjective, hence it is its own new word. Lexicalization is the “process according to which a sequence of words that frequently recur together in texts acquires the status of lexical unit with autonomous meaning” (Jezek, 2016, p. 6). So, as in "department chair," a lexeme can also be two or more words together.

Figure 2: Word clouds are a great way to visually observe the usage of certain keywords in a text (n.d.).

In addition to the above example, another phenomenon that makes separate words difficult to parse is ambiguity. Ambiguity is the property of a lexical form having more than one meaning. It has been suggested that there are two main types of lexical ambiguity: homonymy and polysemy (Jezek, 2016, p. 56). Homonymy is rather simple; it is two words with the same sound and form, but distinctly different meanings. The words "bat" (baseball bat) and "bat" (winged animal) are a perfect example. There is clearly no relation in meaning, regardless of the two words being spelled and pronounced exactly the same. Polysemy is a more difficult term. According to Vicente and Falkum, “a word is said to be polysemous when it is associated with two or several related senses (e.g., a straight line/a line of bad decisions; lose a wallet/lose a relative; a handsome man/a handsome gift). It is distinguished from monosemy, where a word form is associated with a single meaning” (2020). In short, homonyms look like the same word on paper, but have unrelated meanings. Polysemous words look like the same word, and are related. “To run a race” and “to run errands” both use "run," and both involve the action of doing something quickly, but they are not exactly the same sense of "run."

Words versus grammar

Some of the words in one's language stand out as archetypical words. Concrete nouns like "table," "dog" or "run" are good examples of such. These words are rather simple and concrete in meaning. One can think of a table or a dog, or of a person running. But it is much more difficult to think of "by" as a typical word, or of "so," or even "or" as archetypical words. These words are not concrete and cannot be simply imagined in the speaker’s head. Words with grammatical function are called function words, such as "or," "shall," "by," and "in." Words with more concrete meanings are called content words. “Each language has a lexicon and a grammar, i.e., a set of elementary expressions and a set of rules according to which complex expressions are constructed from simpler ones” (Klein, 2015, p. 937). Content words are typically nouns, verbs, and adjectives, while function words are typically prepositions, determiners ("that," "there," etc.), pronouns, and conjunctions. “While content words are autonomous, the meaning of function words is more readily dependent on the content words to which they are related” (Jezek, 2016, p. 15). For example, "in," means “during” when used with time expressions (e.g., I made it in time). However, it means “inside” when used with physical objects (e.g., I am in the car). Function words depend on content words to derive meaning, since, for the most part, one cannot imagine "in" without there being some other entities (words) to give it context, and therefore meaning.

Other languages and words

Words can be thought of as audible (spoken sounds) or visual (written letters) symbols that represent an abstract idea or grouping of ideas. For example, take the word "uncle." "Uncle," whether spoken or written, represents the male sibling of either of one's parents. This simple, five-letter word takes the abstract idea of "family" and picks out a specific entity within it. Those who have ever learned a second language may be surprised to find that certain words are different, or entirely new in their second language as opposed to their native language. As an example, let's say one has two younger sisters. When talking about both of them, they would have to say something like, “my youngest younger sister,” or “my older younger sister,” to differentiate between them, and it is clumsy and verbose. Why could not English have two words that differentiate my youngest younger sister and my older younger sister?

In Japanese, however, there are words for this: "uenoimouto" (older younger sister, lit. upper younger sister) and "shitanoimuoto" (youngest younger sister, lit. lower younger sister). What has to be expressed with a small phrase in English is much more conveniently expressed with a word in Japanese. Another massively expressive word in Japanese is "komorebi," which means “the light that shines through the branches of a tree.” With a single word in Japanese, one can express a whole phrase in English.

Figure 3: Komorebi in La Rebeyrolle (municipality of Saint-Priest-la-Feuille, Creuse, Fr, 2004, April 8).

Dyirbal, an Australian Aboriginal language, uses a classifier system to organize nouns into categories. A rather interesting category of nouns in Dyirbal contains: women, water, fire, and violence, a seemingly unrelated set of concepts (Lakoff, 1990). While English does not use a classifier system, nor a gendered system like that of Spanish, French, or German, it differentiates count and mass nouns. In English, it is possible to say “I have so much milk,” but not “*I have so much cats.” This is because the former is a mass noun (i.e., an uncountable substance) and the latter is a count noun (i.e., a countable particular). Other mass nouns include "water," "fire," or "time," which cannot be made plural and come after "much," while other count nouns include "pencils," "dollars," and "apples," all of which can be made plural and can come after "many."

In short, “word” is hard to define

“Word” is a difficult word to define. Linguists, and specifically lexicologists (not lexicographers) have a set of tools and tests for deciding what is a lexeme and what is not. And this is an ongoing job, as new lexemes are added to the lexicon all the time. A perfect example is the word "cringe" in American English; it is incredibly descriptive. However, there does not seem to be any similar word in Japanese that has the exact feeling that "cringe" does in English. And that is part of the beauty of words: if the word "cringe" did not exist, one would not be able to express those bitter feelings of squeamishness when someone does something completely embarrassing without any sense of shame, that is, when they do something "cringeworthy," which is a form of the lexeme.

Bibliographical Sources

Jezek, E. (2016). The Lexicon: An Introduction (Illustrated edition). Oxford University Press.

Klein, W. (2015). Lexicology and Lexicography. In J. D. Wright (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (Second Edition) (pp. 938–942). Elsevier.

Lakoff, G. (1990). Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. University of Chicago Press.

Liden, D. (2022, November 1). What does a Lexicographer do? Practical Adult Insights.

Pryor, D. (2022, October 21). What is Lexicography? Language Humanities.

Vicente, A., & Falkum, I. (2020, February 26). Polysemy. Oxford Bibliographies.

Visual Sources

Cover Image: Pierre Metivier (n.d.). Remembering and using new words in speech is often a challenge for language learners [Photograph]. Retrieved 11/17/2022 from:

Figure 1: Unknown (n.d.). Lexicographer [Photograph]. Retrieved 11/11/2022 from:

Figure 2: Unknown (2018, December 18). Word Cloud [Image]. Retrieved 11/11/2022 from:

Figure 3: Unknown (2004, April 8). Komorebi in La Rebeyrolle (municipality of Saint-Priest-la-Feuille, Creuse, Fr) [Photograph]. Retrieved 11/11/2022 from:,_(Creuse,_Fr),_sur_le_chemin_de_St.jacques.JPG

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