Based on the entries for the word unicorn, this article investigates how meaning is defined in three very different dictionaries: Ælfric's Glossary (ÆGl), the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and Urban Dictionary (UD). Starting with ÆGl in the Old English period, the article shows that different types of definitions as described by Lew (2013) are already present and that Ælfric's definitions of unicorn, in fact, combine divergent concepts of this mythological creature. The different meanings of unicorn presented by Ælfric are reflected in some of the multiple senses of the word as defined by the monumental OED. A comparison with the numerous entries for unicorn in UD reveals that one of its most prominent senses—'a very attractive (and hence unobtainable) person'—is missing from the OED and also from Lexico, an online dictionary of contemporary English provided by Oxford University Press. On the one hand, these similarities and differences reveal each dictionary's bias for a particular register. On a more fundamental level, however, the evidence calls into question how far classic dictionary definitions are actually able to convey word meaning. In a sense, the multiple overlapping and competing definitions of UD are more successful in representing the fuzziness of word meaning. In a similar way, ÆGl, though written by a single author, combines different sources on the unicorn without merging them into a unified account. Thus, from a typological perspective, medieval glossaries turn out to share certain features with crowd-sourced lexicographical resources like UD, and both are quite distinct from professional lexicography in how they approach word meaning.


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pp. 245-276
Launched on MUSE
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