Word Traveler: Finding the Meaning of a Phrase

This feature is for all word lovers as well as those studying for the SAT and seeking to learn new vocabulary.

Many phrases and compounds are not explicitly defined in dictionaries because lexicographers, due to space and time constraints, direct users to find the meanings of these by looking up the separate words. So, while a dictionary user may find an entry for Turkish coffee or iced coffee, they will not find an entry for black coffee or instant coffee in a standard dictionary. How does one find the meaning and other information about active galaxy, bits and pieces, full-spectrum light, secondary consumer, soccer mom and other contemporary phrases and compounds, fixed expressions, and frozen collocations? There are also thousands of these phrases and combinations which are problematic for learners of English and even native speakers. Idioms have their own dictionaries. Slang has its dictionaries. What about phrases and compounds not usually defined in dictionaries on the assumption that combining the definitions for their parts explains the whole phrase?

To put together the meaning of phrases the way that lexicographers suggest, one has to look at each of the entries and then locate the definition that fits with the other. For aggravated battery, Dictionary.com has the meaning of aggravated here:

Law. characterized by some feature defined by law that enhances the crime, as the intention of the criminal or the special vulnerability of the victim: aggravated assault; aggravated rape.

but does not mention the word battery in the collocational examples. So, one looks up battery and finds, after reading through a number of definitions, that this meaning is the other part of the phrase aggravated battery:

Law. an unlawful attack upon another person by beating or wounding, or by touching in an offensive manner.

Luckily in this case, each of the definitions that go together to make up the phrase are marked with the label Law. But it is still frustrating to read through a number of definitions to find the one that you need and then even harder to put together the two definitions to make one: "an unlawful attack upon another person by beating or wounding, or by touching in an offensive manner - characterized by some feature defined by law that enhances the crime, as the intention of the criminal or the special vulnerability of the victim."

Dictionary.com's Webster's New Millennium Dictionary does define aggravated battery, as well as others - but dictionary users can imagine how many phrases exist that could be added!

To find phrases that are not defined in standard dictionaries, one can do some amateur lexicography on the Internet. One of the tricks on Google is to type in define: aggravated battery (or D aggravated battery), which searches sites - including ones containing glossaries - for a definition. If that does not get you the results you want, try "What is X?" or "X +is short +for" or "X beginners FAQ" or "X means" - different ways of finding someone's meaning for the phrase. These should be regarded as second-tier methods, but they're worth a shot. There are a lot of phrases out there!







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