Explaining meaning

Role 4 of quotations: to explain the meaning of the word they illustrate

But it was also important that the quotations did not just illustrate meaning; in addition, they had to explain or reveal it. Johnson explained in his Preface that ‘It is not sufficient that a word is found [in a quotation-source text], unless it be so combined as that its meaning is apparently determined by the tract and tenour of the sentence; such passages I have therefore chosen…’. The function of quotations is thus to enhance editorial treatment of vocabulary; as Johnson describes (again in his Preface):

The solution of all difficulties, and the supply of all defects, must be sought in the examples, subjoined to the various senses of each word, and ranged according to the time of their authours.

Johnson 2015: 93

For the OED also, users were asked to select quotations that showed ‘the meaning, or use’ of a word or term (see K. M. E. Murray 1977: 347, ‘Directions to Readers for the Dictionary’, no. 9). The degree to which (or ways in which) the quotations printed actually do show meaning varies, however, particularly in the case of examples drawn from poetry or certain sorts of prose writers, where usage may be eccentric or even unique. Further discussion of this and related matters can be found in Connotation vs. denotation in our Literary sources section.

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Last updated on 22 August 2019