Defining basic words

Lexicographical ‘postulates’

Like all dictionary-makers, the editors of the OED have had to struggle with defining the most basic words in English, which often present more intractable problems than complex words. In a letter to F. J. Furnivall of 21 September 1909, J. A. H. Murray expresses his fear that take may be even more difficult to deal with than of and put. If he had his time again, Murray says, he would put all these basic words in an opening section of the Dictionary, and would simply illustrate them (i.e., show how they occur in quotations of real usage) instead of attempting to define them (see transcription of letter below).

In the event, the verb take occupied 13 full pages in OED1 and the lexicographers identified numerous senses and sub-senses. But the most difficult of these apparently simple words turned out to be set, which at this stage was unedited (the letter t was tackled before the letter s). The ‘mass of material’ for set took something approaching forty days to digest: ‘the word occupies a column more than 18 pages of the Dictionary, and extends to 154 main divisions, the last of which (set up) has so many sub-divisions that it exhausts the alphabet and repeats the letters down to rr‘ (quoted from The Periodical, 15 February 1928, p. 5).

Final page of letter from J. A. H. Murray to F. J. Furnivall, 21 September 1909, Skeat/Furnivall Library, King’s College London, ref. Dictionaries 2/2/10; reproduced by kind permission of King’s College London.


T is going to be very difficult, as far as we see. I really fear that Take is going to be even worse than Put, the most difficult verb that I have had to encounter, & perhaps, next to Of, the most difficult word in the Dictionary. The trouble with these primary, elemental, verbs & prepositions, is that you cannot explain them in words. Their meaning is known to everyone by use; but any attempt to put it into other words is doomed to failure & really ludicrous. They are the postulates of lexicography, and if I had to do a dictionary again, I should give a list of Words first of all, which the Dictionary will not pretend to explain, but assume to be known to everybody. These would be illustrated in their places, but no sham definitions attempted: merely a reference to ‘Postulates’. The definitions of these words are merely make-believe – ingenious ways of showing how in a very round about, & to most people unintelligible way, you can approximate to the meaning of the words themselves which nobody needs to be told. How can ‘Take‘ be defined? Is there really any good in saying that it is a general word comprising, seising, assuming, accepting, apprehending, comprehending, putting oneself in the temporary possession of?

Last updated on 24 October 2019