Step 1 - Research the Term

Here’s the scenario, you are writing whatever document it is and you’ve determined that you want to create a definition in your document. But your organization doesn’t have a definition for that term that you can draw from. So your first step in how to write a definition is to see if there’s a definition readily available that you can leverage (and cite so you aren’t plagiarizing). The Unified Compliance team is in that predicament quite often. Where do we find the definitions, what methods do we use to look for them?

Our methodology works its way down from the most authoritative sources to the least authoritative sources. From absolute definitions down to definitions you will have to build out yourself (following standards set forth by international committees).

Searching dictionaries for single words

You might have luck searching the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, or any other host of online dictionaries for single word terms.




Oxford English Dictionary


However, searching for phrases, especially technical phrases, won’t work really well with this list of dictionaries. For that you’ll need to follow a different set of practices.

Searching dictionaries for phrases

Here’s a couple of real world scenarios for you from a technical document we were working with, the bolded terms being the ones you’d need to search for.

Use session lock with pattern-hiding displays to prevent access/viewing of data after period of inactivity.

Authorize remote execution of privileged commands and remote access to security-relevant information.

With these two sentences, we now have the following phrases:

  • session lock
  • pattern-hiding display
  • period of inactivity
  • remote execution
  • privileged command
  • remote access
  • security-relevant information

Both Cambridge and Merriam-Webster found one of the terms listed above (remote access). However, none of them found the rest of the terms. Therefore, you’ll need to turn to searching more technical dictionaries and glossaries for technical phrases such as these.





Computer Dictionary

Free Online Dictionary of Computing

Business Dictionary


TechTarget’s Dictionary

The Law Dictionary

However, even when searching the technical dictionaries above, only one term was found in one dictionary – “remote access” in webopedia. This means that you’ll need to turn more broader search engines, about 90% of the time. We’ll cover how to use search engines next for now, if you were lucky enough to find the definition, save the URL. You will need to add it to the definition as the source of where the definition came from.

Searching Google for phrases

The bad news is that over 90% of the terms you are going to have to add to the dictionary are phrases that don’t exist in any known glossary or dictionary entry. And as of this writing, most document authors fail to provide definitions for their key terms. Don’t worry yet, there’s one more search capability at your fingertips – searching Google’s definitions.

Here’s how to do it. You’ll want to enter terms in both singular and plural form, and if a term has a hyphen you’ll want to search for it with and without the hyphen. You want to use is and are because you are looking for definitions written within a document that aren’t in a glossary entry or definition of terms section. These definitions will be written within the context of the document’s content itself. Therefore, authors are most likely to state the terminology as saying, “X is this” or “many Ys are that”.

Base Term

Single form

Plural form

session lock

define “session lock is”

define “session locks are”

period of inactivity

define “period of inactivity is”

define “periods of inactivity are”

security-relevant information

define “security-relevant information is”

define "security relevant information is"

As an example, searching define “session lock is” turns up uses of the term, but no real definition of the term as shown in the diagram that follows:

Figure 1: A search for “session lock is”

However, searching for “session locks are” finds the definition in the very first search result Google returned, as shown below:

with the following definition

Figure 2: A search for “session locks are”

One of our researchers, Steven Murawski, adds that he has found some sticky definitions by typing "session lock" meaning or "session lock" definition. It works about 10% of the time, but it is worth noting if you can’t find anything else.

If you found the definition, save the URL you will add it to the terminological entry as the source of where the definition came from.

This methodology works great for a few of the terms in our list. However, there wasn’t a single source that we searched for which had a solid definition for pattern-hiding display. So what do you do when you can’t find a source that specifically defines the term? You build the term’s definition following a well-defined international standard for doing so.

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