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What is the Best Definition for a Term?

This is a re-post and modification from an answer that originally appeared on Quora.

Can you define "best"?

So much depends on your audience. Check out these two definitions for "star":
American Heritage Dictionary: A self-luminous celestial body consisting of a mass of gas held together by its own gravity in which the energy generated by nuclear reactions in the interior is balanced by the outflow of energy to the surface, and the inward-directed gravitational forces are balanced by the outward-directed gas and radiation pressures.
YourDictionary: A bright point of light in the sky.

The second definition leaves out a whole lot, doesn't it? For example, "a bright point of light" could include satellites, or airplanes flying at night. But if you are a student in Tashkent trying to teach yourself English, which definition gives you a better chance of grasping the concept?

A dictionary definition is an attempt to give the most possible useful information in the least possible space. The basic premise is that a definition should be able to be plugged into the place of the word in question, in context, in which case #2 would satisfy: Columbus navigated by the bright points of light in the sky.

However, oversimplification can let in wrong information, and then it depends on how persnickety you want to be. I once gave a stab at defining «heart» with reference to the left side of the body, until a colleague pointed out that a condition called dextrocardia puts the heart on the right side in 1 person out of 12,000. Whoops. We deleted the errant information, and still ended up with a definition more suited to a secondary student than to a physician: A muscular organ that pumps blood through the body.

Notice that we ended up with a better definition than one that referred to the heart's placement in the human body, because getting rid of the spacial reference also made the definition applicable to any animal. And now it gets complicated. We gave up on being original, and cribbed the definition from a pretty good attempt at Wiktionary. However, the original Wiktionary definition includes extra information that actually detracts from understanding the physiological sense: A muscular organ that pumps blood through the body, traditionally thought to be the seat of emotion. In my book, "the organ of the human body traditionally thought to be the seat of emotion" would be a separate sense. So, "best" is subjective, depending both on the person who is valiantly attempting to encapsulate a big idea in a tiny space, and the person who is trying to make use of the definition for their particular needs with their particular foreknowledge.

The lexicographer is one schmo, who happens to write dictionary definitions. Ask five other lexicographers, you'll get ten other opinions. Can we tell you which is best? I'm a frayed knot.


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