Differences in popular understandings of the word "democracy" across continents, countries, social groups and individuals pose serious challenges of conceptual equivalence and content validity for comparative survey researchers. This article explores the pros and cons of three potential solutions tried by the Afrobarometer: an open-ended question on the meaning of the "D-word", a set of questions about core democratic institutions, and an innovative method of "anchoring" popular understandings by means of a scale of hypothetical vignettes about a variety of political regimes with differing degrees of democracy.